Vietnam Unveiled: A Conversation With Kim Saunders
Kim Saunders, one of Zegrahm Expedition’s leaders for their 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. Zegrahm recently asked Kim for her impressions of the region and what travelers on future expeditions 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.
Photos: Copyright, Zegrahm Expeditions