Vietnam Unveiled: A Conversation With Kim Saunders

October 20, 2002

Kim Saunders, one of the leaders of our Vietnam & the Ancient Kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos expedition, has been traveling throughout Southeast Asia for nearly 20 years. A lecturer and expert on contemporary Asian culture, Kim has been promoting awareness and appreciation of locally produced Southeast Asian handicrafts for the past decade. We recently asked Kim for her impressions of the region and what travelers on next year's expedition, departing 17 March, can expect.

When did you first travel to Vietnam and Cambodia?

I decided to visit Vietnam in 1997. I had been asked to join a lecture tour, and I wanted to do some hands-on research. I was also cognizant that Vietnam was becoming a must-see destination, and I wanted to experience the people, the country, and the culture. Long before my opportunity to visit the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, those names evoked the exoticism of Indochina and the tragic media images of the political conflicts of the 1970s. Only recently opened to tourism, these destinations afforded the chance to glimpse some, as yet, unspoiled cultures and view examples of magnificent heritage.

I was so enamored with the grace and integrity of the Vietnamese people and the beauty of the country, I returned in 1998 to visit the hill tribes of the northern highlands, having first traversed Laos north to south. Since then, I have accompanied seven shipboard expeditions through Vietnam and led a program to Laos for Zegrahm last year.

Cambodia had long been on my wish list. The images of the temples in the jungle captured my imagination years ago. My first visit there, a wedding anniversary trip, was in 2000. Flying into Siem Reap on a clear, sunny afternoon, I could see the architectural ingenuity and engineering of Angkor Wat from a bird's-eye view, and the cosmology behind the layout fell into perspective. I was in awe.

What were your initial impressions of the people you met?

I was unsure how the Vietnamese would regard foreign travelers and Westerners, if they would be resentful or angry over recent conflicts. I couldn't have been proved more wrong. Everywhere there was a friendly smile and an overwhelming joie de vivre combined with a fascination with visitors. Since my first visit, I have traveled with many different nationalities, including Americans, in the region. Refreshingly and reassuringly, the Vietnamese are welcoming, gracious, and focused on the future. As a people, they have endured centuries of conflict, but the past is the past, the present is now, and what is really important is tomorrow. I find this forward-looking aspect immensely positive.

Your specialty is Southeast Asian handicrafts, especially textiles. Can you talk a bit about their historical and cultural significance?

Textile traditions in Southeast Asia epitomize a fusion of trading links between the two historical markets of China and India together with the indigenous traditions of ethnic minorities. One can see from the friezes how textiles were used and worn and what part they played in culture. The Hindu influence is clearly visible in the Khmer sculptures at Angkor Wat and My Son. In contrast, Vietnamese national costume and traditions in embroidery show a clear Chinese influence. Ethnic groups such as the Hmong have their own distinctive costumes. Traditional techniques of production shared by some of these groups testify to historical movement and migration in the region.

The mix of cultures pervades the region's belief systems, religions, art, architecture, crafts, languages, and cuisines. Everywhere, there is a fusion of Chinese, Indian, and Arab traditions and influences brought via trade and migration over centuries.

You will also be leading the Vietnam Highlands post-extension. What can travelers expect?

The relative remoteness of the highlands makes it one of the few areas in the region that have only recently begun to step into the 21st century; it is still a frontier in time and space between ancient cultural traditions and modernity. Stunning scenery; rural winding roads; vibrant, colorful costumes; and the last vestiges of a traditional way of life await the visitor. Of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minorities, the most prominent in the highlands around Sapa and Bac Ha are the Hmong and the Dao. Their colorful costumes represent ethnic identity and regional ties. The Red Dao women are easily distinguishable by their vibrant red scarves, covering shaved heads. The women of Hmong groups such as the Flower Hmong, the Red Hmong, and the Blue Hmong wear very full pleated skirts, decorated with batik, embroidery, and applique. The swing of the skirt is designed to draw the eye to the wearer when she ventures to market. Amidst a remote and mountainous terrain, the colors and variety of the local costumes speak volumes about the wearer's identity and origin.

What are your goals for next year's expedition?

My goals are for positive cultural experiences for both "hosts" and "guests." I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge of the area and, in turn, learning even more. There is always something new to explore. Cambodia offers the splendors of an ancient civilization, and it is still possible to walk amid the ruins. Vietnam offers diversity from north to south, the ancient capital of My Son, Hue, Hoi An, and Halong Bay - each a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a chance to experience some of the remaining ethnic groups. The charm of Luang Prabang, another World Heritage Site, overlooking the Mekong, and the awesome Plain of Jars in Laos (on the post-extension) are not to be missed. The entire expedition is one highlight after another. There is truly something for everyone, be it cultural, historical, spiritual, ethnographical, or environmental.

Saving the Albatross

October 20, 2002

The albatross is one of nature's true wonders. These seabirds can soar for hours, riding on the wind, ranging for thousands of miles over open ocean. The wandering albatross, the largest seabird in the world, remains at sea for years before returning to land to nest. For centuries, sailors considered these birds sacrosanct; to kill an albatross was to court disaster.

A cruel irony, then, that oceangoing fishermen are now responsible for drastic declines in 17 different albatross species, driving some to the brink of extinction. The cause of the birds' plight and the efforts to save them are a microcosm of the processes of species extinction and their possible salvation.

In order to harvest large numbers of fish, ships extend longlines for up to 80 miles behind their vessels. To these, they attach thousands of baited hooks. Longline fleets set an estimated one billion of these hooks annually. Albatross and other seabirds, attracted by the bait, swallow the hooks and are dragged beneath the waves to drown. The toll is 300,000 seabirds a year. In the early '90s, ornithologist Nigel Brothers, seeking to find the cause of the decline in the Australian albatross population, signed aboard a longline fishing boat and documented firsthand the birds becoming caught on the hooks.

The problem is growing. In 1994, one third of all albatross species were threatened. A scant six years later, the number had grown to two thirds. On South Georgia I see roughly half the number of albatross that I saw there 30 years ago.

Alerted to this situation, a number of conservation groups, including the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, formed BirdLife International, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness of the problem and implementing solutions, which include changing longlining methods and working with the UN to eliminate pirate fleets (ships that use current loopholes in international law to circumvent fishing regulations).

Such efforts require funding. Passengers on our Antarctica and South Georgia expeditions have greatly contributed to this cause. Every day during an expedition, I paint a watercolor depicting something of our travels, wildlife or landscapes, and post these for sale as mementos of our journey. For each voyage I also create a chart showing our route, illustrated with seabirds and other wildlife of the region. On our last night aboard ship, these charts go to the highest bidder in spirited auctions. The money raised goes to the Royal Society as well as Falkland Islands and South Georgia conservation efforts. To date, a total of $99,485 has been raised for these projects, of which $59,100 has been forwarded to the "Save the Albatross Campaign."

I am happy to report that BirdLife has met with some success in its campaign. The decline in albatross populations has slowed, and I'm very hopeful that concerted efforts will halt the decline altogether. Of course, as with all such environmental struggles, a good beginning is still only a beginning. We have a tremendous amount of work yet to do.

For more information on BirdLife International and the Save the Albatross campaign, visit their Web site: www.birdlife.net.

Vietnam Unveiled: A Conversation With Kim Saunders

October 19, 2002 | Tags: Uncategorized

Kim Saunders, one of the leaders of our Vietnam & the Ancient Kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos expedition, has been traveling throughout Southeast Asia for nearly 20 years. A lecturer and expert on contemporary Asian culture, Kim has been promoting awareness and appreciation of locally produced Southeast Asian handicrafts for the past decade. We recently asked Kim for her impressions of the region and what travelers on next year's expedition, departing 17 March, can expect.

When did you first travel to Vietnam and Cambodia?

I decided to visit Vietnam in 1997. I had been asked to join a lecture tour, and I wanted to do some hands-on research. I was also cognizant that Vietnam was becoming a must-see destination, and I wanted to experience the people, the country, and the culture. Long before my opportunity to visit the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, those names evoked the exoticism of Indochina and the tragic media images of the political conflicts of the 1970s. Only recently opened to tourism, these destinations afforded the chance to glimpse some, as yet, unspoiled cultures and view examples of magnificent heritage.

I was so enamored with the grace and integrity of the Vietnamese people and the beauty of the country, I returned in 1998 to visit the hill tribes of the northern highlands, having first traversed Laos north to south. Since then, I have accompanied seven shipboard expeditions through Vietnam and led a program to Laos for Zegrahm last year.

Cambodia had long been on my wish list. The images of the temples in the jungle captured my imagination years ago. My first visit there, a wedding anniversary trip, was in 2000. Flying into Siem Reap on a clear, sunny afternoon, I could see the architectural ingenuity and engineering of Angkor Wat from a bird's-eye view, and the cosmology behind the layout fell into perspective. I was in awe.

What were your initial impressions of the people you met?

I was unsure how the Vietnamese would regard foreign travelers and Westerners, if they would be resentful or angry over recent conflicts. I couldn't have been proved more wrong. Everywhere there was a friendly smile and an overwhelming joie de vivre combined with a fascination with visitors. Since my first visit, I have traveled with many different nationalities, including Americans, in the region. Refreshingly and reassuringly, the Vietnamese are welcoming, gracious, and focused on the future. As a people, they have endured centuries of conflict, but the past is the past, the present is now, and what is really important is tomorrow. I find this forward-looking aspect immensely positive.

Your specialty is Southeast Asian handicrafts, especially textiles. Can you talk a bit about their historical and cultural significance?

Textile traditions in Southeast Asia epitomize a fusion of trading links between the two historical markets of China and India together with the indigenous traditions of ethnic minorities. One can see from the friezes how textiles were used and worn and what part they played in culture. The Hindu influence is clearly visible in the Khmer sculptures at Angkor Wat and My Son. In contrast, Vietnamese national costume and traditions in embroidery show a clear Chinese influence. Ethnic groups such as the Hmong have their own distinctive costumes. Traditional techniques of production shared by some of these groups testify to historical movement and migration in the region.

The mix of cultures pervades the region's belief systems, religions, art, architecture, crafts, languages, and cuisines. Everywhere, there is a fusion of Chinese, Indian, and Arab traditions and influences brought via trade and migration over centuries.

You will also be leading the Vietnam Highlands post-extension. What can travelers expect?

The relative remoteness of the highlands makes it one of the few areas in the region that have only recently begun to step into the 21st century; it is still a frontier in time and space between ancient cultural traditions and modernity. Stunning scenery; rural winding roads; vibrant, colorful costumes; and the last vestiges of a traditional way of life await the visitor. Of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minorities, the most prominent in the highlands around Sapa and Bac Ha are the Hmong and the Dao. Their colorful costumes represent ethnic identity and regional ties. The Red Dao women are easily distinguishable by their vibrant red scarves, covering shaved heads. The women of Hmong groups such as the Flower Hmong, the Red Hmong, and the Blue Hmong wear very full pleated skirts, decorated with batik, embroidery, and applique. The swing of the skirt is designed to draw the eye to the wearer when she ventures to market. Amidst a remote and mountainous terrain, the colors and variety of the local costumes speak volumes about the wearer's identity and origin.

What are your goals for next year's expedition?

My goals are for positive cultural experiences for both "hosts" and "guests." I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge of the area and, in turn, learning even more. There is always something new to explore. Cambodia offers the splendors of an ancient civilization, and it is still possible to walk amid the ruins. Vietnam offers diversity from north to south, the ancient capital of My Son, Hue, Hoi An, and Halong Bay - each a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a chance to experience some of the remaining ethnic groups. The charm of Luang Prabang, another World Heritage Site, overlooking the Mekong, and the awesome Plain of Jars in Laos (on the post-extension) are not to be missed. The entire expedition is one highlight after another. There is truly something for everyone, be it cultural, historical, spiritual, ethnographical, or environmental.

Saving the Albatross

October 19, 2002 | Tags: Indian Ocean

The albatross is one of nature's true wonders. These seabirds can soar for hours, riding on the wind, ranging for thousands of miles over open ocean. The wandering albatross, the largest seabird in the world, remains at sea for years before returning to land to nest. For centuries, sailors considered these birds sacrosanct; to kill an albatross was to court disaster.

A cruel irony, then, that oceangoing fishermen are now responsible for drastic declines in 17 different albatross species, driving some to the brink of extinction. The cause of the birds' plight and the efforts to save them are a microcosm of the processes of species extinction and their possible salvation.

In order to harvest large numbers of fish, ships extend longlines for up to 80 miles behind their vessels. To these, they attach thousands of baited hooks. Longline fleets set an estimated one billion of these hooks annually. Albatross and other seabirds, attracted by the bait, swallow the hooks and are dragged beneath the waves to drown. The toll is 300,000 seabirds a year. In the early '90s, ornithologist Nigel Brothers, seeking to find the cause of the decline in the Australian albatross population, signed aboard a longline fishing boat and documented firsthand the birds becoming caught on the hooks.

The problem is growing. In 1994, one third of all albatross species were threatened. A scant six years later, the number had grown to two thirds. On South Georgia I see roughly half the number of albatross that I saw there 30 years ago.

Alerted to this situation, a number of conservation groups, including the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, formed BirdLife International, an organization dedicated to raising public awareness of the problem and implementing solutions, which include changing longlining methods and working with the UN to eliminate pirate fleets (ships that use current loopholes in international law to circumvent fishing regulations).

Such efforts require funding. Passengers on our Antarctica and South Georgia expeditions have greatly contributed to this cause. Every day during an expedition, I paint a watercolor depicting something of our travels, wildlife or landscapes, and post these for sale as mementos of our journey. For each voyage I also create a chart showing our route, illustrated with seabirds and other wildlife of the region. On our last night aboard ship, these charts go to the highest bidder in spirited auctions. The money raised goes to the Royal Society as well as Falkland Islands and South Georgia conservation efforts. To date, a total of $99,485 has been raised for these projects, of which $59,100 has been forwarded to the "Save the Albatross Campaign."

I am happy to report that BirdLife has met with some success in its campaign. The decline in albatross populations has slowed, and I'm very hopeful that concerted efforts will halt the decline altogether. Of course, as with all such environmental struggles, a good beginning is still only a beginning. We have a tremendous amount of work yet to do.

For more information on BirdLife International and the Save the Albatross campaign, visit their Web site: www.birdlife.net.

Galapagos My Way

July 20, 2002

In July 2003, Zegrahm returns to the Galapagos Islands aboard the Isabela II for an expedition designed and led by Zegrahm cofounder Jack Grove. Jack is eminently qualified to lead travelers to the Galapagos, as he spent seven years in the archipelago working as a naturalist guide and conducting marine biological research. The results of his labors, the book The Fishes of the Galapagos Islands, is the first comprehensive guide to the fishes of the region. In the following, Jack discusses how the islands have changed his life.

My connection to the Galapagos dates from 1975. I was pursuing a degree in marine biology at the University of West Florida, and my professors and I agreed that I should spend a semester doing fieldwork in the archipelago, so I took ship, serving as a deckhand on a privately owned sailboat. The resulting paper I wrote on the nearshore fishes of the islands was the genesis of the book I would publish many years later.

Encountering the archipelago for the first time, I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of spectacular natural beauty and stark barren landscapes. On larger islands, volcanic peaks rise to over 5,000 feet and support lush flora. Some islands have recent lava flows awaiting their first covering of vegetation; elsewhere, cacti and silver-barked Palo Santo trees flourish in the dry climate. Pristine coastline surrounds each island, all with a version of glistening white, crystal red, or black sand beaches.

Coming to the Galapagos sparked a number of revelations. Growing up, nature was always important to me; however, my country upbringing in southeastern Pennsylvania did not offer any direct ocean exposure, aside from summer vacations spent at the seashore in Delaware. When I arrived in the Galapagos at the age of 24, my eyes were opened to a world I had previously only dreamed of. Once there, I knew I would never discover another place like it.

A second revelation, one that shaped the rest of my life, came when I visited the Charles Darwin Research Station to see what books were available on the fishes of the islands. I was astonished to learn that not one volume had ever been published on the subject. How could that be? This was the mecca of modern biology, the place where Charles Darwin formulated his theories of evolution and natural selection. The literature on the birds and land animals is extensive and justifiably famous. In sharp contrast to the much-studied terrestrial environment, life beneath the waves was poorly understood.

I set myself to the task of learning as much as I could about the fishes of the Galapagos. Another factor that spurred my interest was my belief that we need to understand before we can protect; by compiling a comprehensive book on Galapagos fishes, perhaps, in some small way, I could contribute to marine conservation. In 1977, one year after graduating from college, I returned to the islands, determined to write a popular account of the 50 most ubiquitous species of fish. The project grew over the years, from a Spanish/English edition published in Ecuador in 1984 that covered 105 species, to the culminating work published by Stanford University Press in 1997, which records 437. The Fishes of the Galapagos Islands also served as my dissertation, earning me a Ph.D. in marine biology from Pacific Western University.

To support myself during my research, I worked as a naturalist guide aboard the M/V Buccaneer, interpreting natural history for travelers and leading hikes and snorkeling excursions. This last duty proved the most scientifically productive, as it enabled me to do underwater photography and carry out observations on fish behavior and distribution.

The combination of fieldwork and ecotourism produced memorable, sometimes amusing, encounters. Once, I returned to the ship with a load of new passengers that comprised the graduating class of an all-girl's school in Quito. I was assisting getting everyone's baggage into the cabins when I heard bloodcurdling screams coming from the lower deck, where my marine lab was located. Dropping the bags, I ran below to find three 17-year-old girls pinned against a corridor wall. At their feet was the cause for alarm, an octopus that had escaped from one of the aquariums in the lab. I felt terrible for the poor cephalopod. It was covered in dirt and grime from the carpet and, I'm sure, was as terrified of the girls as they were of it. I quickly restored the octopus to its aquarium, and the girls were relieved to know that this marine creature, the first they had encountered in the Galapagos, was not some sort of eight-legged cockroach. The next day, I released the octopus at the same spot where I had collected it a week earlier.

Since completing my studies, I have returned to the archipelago many times to lead Zegrahm trips and conduct additional research. Most visitors to the islands miss out on fully experiencing the marine environment. I have planned next year's departure, which begins 06 July, to give our passengers a balanced overview of both the terrestrial and marine worlds. On land, we will hike the lunar-like terrain for encounters with the Galapagos' fabulous animal inhabitants. Thousands of seabirds make their homes on the islands. We will see colonies of waved albatross, storm-petrels, and three kinds of boobies, as well as the flightless cormorant, one of the world's rarest and strangest birds.

In the warm Pacific waters, we will search for whales and dolphins and snorkel among schools of rainbow fish, sea turtles, and maybe even penguins. Think about it. Where else can you comfortably snorkel with penguins? I never tire of introducing travelers to the myriad of aquatic creatures; seeing the look on people's faces when they swim with a sea lion for the first time is a joy.

By our journey's end, you will become modern-day Darwins, having achieved a greater understanding of the uniqueness and fragility of the Galapagos's ecosystem. I hope you will join me for an exploration both above and below the surface of these enchanted seas.