Heels & Soul



September 2014



Film Photographs: Morocco

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I’m back in the United States now and I just stumbled on an old link to my film photographs from Morocco that I never got around to uploading until now! Near the end of my Vietnam trip, my Yashica film camera started to act up so despite having stacks of Kodak film in my room, I haven’t had the chance to snap any film photos since coming back to North America.

Here in Maine, I’m trying to adopt the perspective of enjoying all the warm sun and nature before the bitter cold settles. I realize that there is so much to this state that I have yet to explore before leaving in May. I haven’t seen a lighthouse yet nor have I seen all the phenomenal nature that gives Maine its affectionate title of Vacationland. This past weekend, I tried to remedy that by heading out to Nezinscot Farm in Turner where my roommate ordered a gigantic waffle and I happily wolfed down some chocolate chip pancakes topped with the freshest whipped cream I have ever tasted. What a dream! I can’t go back to canned whip cream after having a taste of the other side. The farm to table concept of eating is fascinating and better for our environment. Frankly, everything tasted better! After stuffing ourselves, we headed to Turner bridge to do some bridge jumping and swimming.

♬ ✩ In My Life – The Beatles ♬ ✩

I am absolutely terrified of heights, but of course it was my idea to go jump off a bridge for fun. I was once on a cable car in London and had a panic attack when we reached the highest peak, so once my toes were over the edge on that bridge, I could already feel my heart pounding right out of my chest. Thankfully, two of my friends held my hand and when we reached “GO!” the momentum of their jump also propelled me forward so I flew straight into the water. Needless to say, once was enough for me but perhaps next time I’ll overcome my fear of falling and take the plunge once more.





















August 2014



Travel: Baby Went Down to Amsterdam

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I miss Europe. I definitely have to move back to London permanently in the next little while.

Amsterdam was one of my earlier trips outside of England. D., C., S. and I took a red eye bus from London-Amsterdam that was full of a series of unfortunate events. Both of our buses were involved in car accidents, but we eventually made it out to the streets of Amsterdam, bright and early, after a night of limited sleep on the bus. With our matted hair, unbrushed teeth and wrinkled clothes, we immediately walked over to the Anne Frank Museum, where we lined up for nearly 40 minutes.

I remember reading all of Anne Frank’s works and diary as a child. It was staple elementary-aged reading material and I still have her books on my shelf today. If you plan to go to the Anne Frank Museum, plan ahead, because everyone who comes to Amsterdam who has read Anne’s diary wants to take a look at the house that held the Frank family during Nazi occupation in World War II. You will wait for awhile. Seeing the cramped quarters, the bookcase that hid the door to their hidden home and the windows that were once discreetly covered was so surreal. It was an emotionally-charged experience for many people visiting because there were so many undertones to the experience. I hear that visiting Auschwitz in Poland also evokes the same eerie and sorrowful feelings. It’s not so strange to feel such a deep empathy. If we didn’t remind ourselves that events like this have come and pass, initiated by other humans, then we will let history repeat itself.

Amsterdam is always a popular tourist destinations for westerners. It’s a mythical place where one can ride flower-laced bikes parallel to the the lovely canals and where the nightlife thrives until the morning and  weed is readily accessible at coffeeshops. I personally was too exhausted from the tiring commute and the hours of walking during the day, so on all the nights in Amsterdam, our group had a very PG experience. We lived rather close to the red light district, which was a bit of a damper. One night, D., S. and I went out for a walk to see the notorious area, and it was entirely depressing. I understand that the premise of the red light district is allegedly a liberating one where agency is supposed to be a strong theme. However, as women, S. and I felt so uncomfortable walking through those streets at night. If D. wasn’t accompanying us, the leers and glances would have felt threatening more so than menacing. It was essentially such a meat market, and to hear some of the things that those men were saying outside of the glass windows was a bit nauseating. That was enough to turn us off of Amsterdam by night.

Overall, Amsterdam by day is such a charming city. It would be a nice place to write books.



















 ♫ ♬  Peter, Bjorn & John – Amsterdam  ♫ ♬ 










August 2014



Small Things with Great Love

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Small things, great love.

It’s so easy for us to fall prey to social convention, materialism and the desire for “things” that we can forget that the smallest of actions bring great love and happiness to ourselves and others.

As the years are passing by and as I get busier with more and more to do, I have been trying to remind myself to leave small tokens of affection and care for people that I love. Sometimes it isn’t a grandiose gesture that people want, but rather just a simple message that they are remembered, loved and thought of. Kind intentions, thoughtful messages and small things can carry far on beyond the present time. We do not know what people are experiencing at any given time, so the simplest of actions can bring about a lot of happiness for someone going through a lot of private issues or personal problems.

When I was much younger, I used to be so much better at this, but when life got hectic, it became hard to continue with all the hand-written notes or remembering to stay in touch with people. After the past nine months of traveling and noticing how small moments can bring such gratitude and happiness, I want to begin again with the sweet, unprecedented gestures that we used to do as children.

I was reminded of this recently when I left Saigon. My oldest Aunt lives in our family home in Vietnam with another Aunt of mine who is a dentist. She is unmarried and doesn’t have any children and now that all her nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters have immigrated to countries abroad, this huge house in the center of Saigon is now quiet, lackluster in energy and strangely empty. Three generations of the Pham family lived in that house at one point while it was still lively and jovial, but now all but one of the bedrooms has a lived-in appearance. The other rooms hold remnants and trinkets of their past owners, but dust has started to collect over much of what once was. That’s the thing about upward social mobility and globalization – support systems and families start to drift apart. We move all over and we begin new and exciting lives, but often at the cost of becoming further distant from our loved ones, our culture and everything we know. When I returned back to Vietnam and saw how many brilliant young people want to leave the country to study abroad, I was hopeful and proud of all their intelligence – but I also couldn’t help but wonder and ask myself: “At what cost?”

I write this after saying goodbye to many people in my life: family, loved ones, lovers, friends, acquaintances, teachers, mentors and everything else in between. It’s become second nature for me to experience coming and going, and saying goodbye. I am not as sad as I once was to leave places, because I know that the distance between the people I love and myself is merely an airplane ticket. Despite this, I always feel a twinge of nostalgia before I must leave wherever I’ve been calling home for a short amount of time because I’ve said goodbye enough to know that even if we were to meet again, things may not be as they once were. Life as it is and moments that we experience are the way they are because of the collision of many factors under the right bearing of time. We cannot recreate what once happened naturally.

The other day, in passing conversation, I asked a friend of mine where I could buy flowers to send to my Aunt. She had been sending me photographs daily of the roses that my Mother and I had bought in the days preceding our return to Canada. Day by day, the number of roses began to dwindle in each photograph. The Saigon heat is not meant for roses – their beauty quickly fades under the harsh humidity. Finally, there was a single white rose left in the photograph. I called my Aunt and told her to buy some more flowers for the house but she told me: “There is no one here! If I buy the flowers, who can appreciate them?” Those who have lived with me or who know me, know that I often buy flowers and plants for my room. Whether I was living in England or in the US, my room always had a few plants or a vase of flowers. Plants truly do brighten up your living space! This combined with the conversation with my Aunt sparked the idea to gift her some flowers so that her days could be brightened. Who doesn’t love to walk by a room filled with the fragrance of flowers and the color it adds to a space?

When I asked my friend where I could find a flower delivery shop, he asked me why I wanted to send flowers. When he found out, he offered to buy them and deliver a bouquet to my Aunt – which was ridiculously sweet and unexpected. The following day, my Aunt sent me five emails, each containing photographs of the roses that she had just received. She told me later on that she had received 50 ROSES! Firstly, this was not what I was expecting when my friend offered to help give flowers to my Aunt. What a surprise when I discovered that he had brought her 50 roses! That was far beyond what I was anticipating! Secondly, few words can capture the emotion you feel when you know you’ve made someone happy. My Aunt told me she was completely surprised when she heard someone ring the doorbell at lunch when it was terribly hot outside. She wasn’t expecting that it would be someone bringing her flowers!

My friend kept on insisting that this was a small matter for him to help me with, but for me – it was something entirely meaningful and although he claimed that it took minimal effort, it brought about a maximum level of appreciation and happiness for my Aunt, and by association, me. These things cannot be forgotten with time.

We have the capacity to do small things that give people great love.

People make me happy. I believe that people are good.





August 2014



TRAVEL: The Ancient Town of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

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I was completely enchanted by Hoi An during my brief visit there. My Mother was born in Da Nang, the central part of Vietnam, so returning back to Da Nang was a bit of a sojourn to the past to her childhood. After we arrived in Da Nang, Anh Phuong – Mr. Q’s driver – took us on a really splendid tour of Hoi An later on that evening. At first, my Mom and I went for a stroll in the ancient city and we were completely enamored by the stature of the old wooden buildings and the rustic, other-worldly feel of Hoi An. Once dusk passed, the streets were warmly aglow from the soft shades of hanging paper lanterns.

Hoi An is probably one of the top destinations to visit if you have a chance to go through Vietnam. Nothing about this trip went awry and it was a constant sequence of happy events and activities. Hoi An is an old trading port dating back to the 15th-19th Century that has been immaculately preserved. I am wholly fascinated at how its remained intact throughout all this time. Before sundown, my Mom and I passed this quaint bakery and I couldn’t help but be drawn to the pastries, so we walked in to the smell of freshly-baked goods wafting throughout the parlor. We ordered a passionfruit yoghurt cake, and for the middle of nowhere in Vietnam, what a pleasant surprise! It was the best cake I’d had in a few months. A few weeks earlier, I had gone to a bakery near my house with some of my students and we gorged on a huge selection of cakes, but nothing was quite like this little concoction.

If you want a short getaway to a mystical place rich in history, gentle people and a lot to see and do, Hoi An is a fantastic place to visit. You can get a suit or dressed tailored in a day for very reasonable price and by night, you can wander along the riverbank and buy a lantern or two to set sail into the darkness. I enjoyed the peaceful nature of Hoi An – it was a stark contrast from the business-oriented ways of Saigon.















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August 2014



Part III: Saigon Street Food

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At the beginning of my fellowship, Ri, the niece of Mr. Q. – the shoe factory Chairman – would tell me stories about food during our time working together. From the time I stepped onto the premises and throughout the midday siesta, we would exchange conversations about Vietnamese food. What was good? What was the traditional meal for lunch? What were some new novelties on the street? One day, her brother and her picked me up and took me to experience grilled street food in District 10 and the latest street dessert: kem xoi dua (sticky rice with coconut shavings and ice cream). What a treat! Thanks to Ri and her family, I’m headed back to Bates this September with a rad shoe collection from Lacoste! I suppose this is a perk of working in fashion – irrelevant of whether you’re working in the studio or the factory!















August 2014



Oh Saigon!

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Now that I’m back home, I am experiencing such a deep nostalgia for the bustle of the city, the humid days under the beating sun and the incessant stream of noise. I’ve adopted an attitude over the past few years to try to enjoy where I am at the present moment. Having mindfulness and being present with your surroundings can change so much about the extent of positivity you feel about your current life and your overall happiness. For example, it is easy to visit a country like Vietnam and absolutely despise the experience. One can complain about the lack of sanitation, the high degree of pollution, the relentless mosquitoes, the pickpockets and a whole slew of negative traits. There are many people who return to Vietnam and focus solely on the bad, and therefore, how can they enjoy their experience? Everywhere they go, they will find something to nitpick at and something that is not comparable to the West.

For those who lack the ability to see beyond what lies at face value, a trip to a beautiful country like Vietnam may be less than ideal. It is no use to compare salt with pepper, because salt is inherently different from pepper and pepper in its essence is innately different from salt. It is the same to compare the standard of living in Vietnam with the standard of living in the US. Each has its own flow and pace that works for the culture and society that people in each respective country are settled into. There are some things that you can do in Saigon that simply don’t translate over to western culture and there is a way of living in the US that cannot be imitated by Vietnam. I like it that way. This is why Vietnam is Vietnam and America is America. How can one compare the beauty of a mountain with the sea?

I love Vietnam, for all its flaws and things I do not yet understand about the country and myself. I left part of my heart in Saigon and I find that my parts of my heart are now scattered around the Earth. Shared laughter, warm hugs, the meeting of tea cups, the clinking of beer glasses, the dancing, the lights, the music, the sounds, the people, the routine sounds of an early morning, the intersection between globalization and tradition. I saw my oldest Aunt, who is now 70 and other family members who were but stories in the past. I experienced generosity beyond imagination. I accepted kindness and realized that I was indebted to far too many people. I have a lifetime of giving to even out the love that has been given to me.

I am thankful to the many families that have opened up their dinner tables, homes, companies and lives to me over my short five weeks in Saigon. Had I known that I would fall in love so easily with this country, I would have prolonged my trip in advance. I am thankful to my Mother for accompanying me. She was so instrumental in helping me arrange my schedule and work related to my thesis and my fellowship. I am thankful to my Aunts for having us in the home and to the Portuguese gal pals for dropping by for what would be the beginning of a week of Saigon festivities. Lastly, to all my students at USSH and the dear friends that I made (Duyen, Trung, Ri), I hope that we all have the opportunities to laugh together again, perhaps somewhere else in the world in the not so distant future.

I have returned back to Canada humbled and inspired.

Oh Saigon.

I’ll see you again soon.

You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.







August 2014



Travel: Food Tour in Hoi An & DaNang!

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I think I will have to go on a seafood fast for some time after our binge yesterday. I arrived in DaNang and was picked up by Mr. Q., who owns one of the factories that I have been doing my research in. Without his help much of my research couldn’t have come into fruition. His nieces have come to my aid over these past few months and they’ve been so instrumental in helping me translate technical questions to factory workers. Not to mention, since they have such a great rapport with the factory workers, it has made conversations so much more easier to begin. Mr. Q., is such a prolific businessman. His outlook on life is uplifting and he never dwells upon things that have come and gone. There’s nothing that we can do for things that have come to pass – time doesn’t rewind back for nostalgic minds or for those who wish to repair mistakes from earlier times. We must simply continue on. In business, you’re subject to volatile markets, globalization, your customer’s demands and whims, and a whole lot of risk. Some golden years will be more profitable than others and other years will be full of losses, but either way – one must keep a calm composure.

After picking us up at the airport, Mr. Q. and his driver took us to Son Tra to enjoy some fresh seafood. The clams and shells in DaNang have the remnants of the saltwater ocean when they linger on your tongue for some time. For a CEO, I am so amazed that he can cook like a five-star chef. His Mother passed away when he was seven, so he’s learned a variety of tricks and useful skills since then and cooking is one of them. Hoi An and DaNang are both well renowned for their mouth-watering food and I cannot deny that I have been eating to my heart’s content. At night, we were taken to Hoi An where we enjoyed cao lau, ban trang dap, hen and che bap.

I literally spent all of yesterday eating. At 9:00 PM, my eyes started to get heavy from the food coma.








❤ ♬ The Carpenters ❤ ♬








August 2014



OUTFIT: Floral Ao Dai

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I know I was supposed to continue the Ao Dai series last week, but I had some friends drop by from Portugal for a few days. I met C. in Turkey in 2010 and when I moved to London, I discovered that she was also in the UK. I made some plans to drop by Lisbon for a few days with two American friends, and it was over a dinner table conversation that I learned that she was coming to Vietnam this summer with a few friends. The O.C. family was so lovely during our stay in Portugal. I even extended my flight to have Easter dinner in Sintra.  In a common display of Canadian x Vietnamese hospitality, there was no way that we could have a friend visiting our city and stay in a hotel so we invited C. and her friends to come and live with us. As a result, I’ve had such a hectic week. I taught my last class at the University of Social Sciences & Humanities on Thursday and had a farewell gathering with my students on Friday, despite the flooding and heavy rain. I am so appreciative that these students opened upon their minds and their evenings so that I could have the opportunity to teach them English and to mutually learn about their diverse perspectives on a variety of social issues.

I’m leaving Saigon this upcoming Wednesday and I can’t believe that this chapter is coming to a close. By now, I’ve become so familiarized with the pulse of this city. I’ve come to love the beating rhythm of the orchestra of rain pouring down on our tin roof. My bedroom is at the very top floor of the house, so I am the first to know when the clouds have decided to lighten their burden. I heard my first thunderstorm on Friday night and for a second, I thought the world had come to the end because I had never heard such deafening thunder in my life. In London, I remember turning on Netflix to tune out the terrifying gusts of wind and lightning when the rain decided to be more feisty than usual. However, in Saigon, I just laid in my bed, with the thunderstorm lulling me to sleep. As a Vancouver girl, I always know when it’s going to rain. There’s that crisp scent of earth and your skin starts absorbing all the humidity in the air. Stand still and take in the brief, fleeting moments before it rains – it’s one of my favorite experiences of being human.

I can’t help but note that life is moving at such an unprecedented rate. I’ve been feeling this way for a few years now. You can’t slow time down, but you can decide what you do with what little time you have.

As my last “hurrah” in Vietnam, I took my Mom and I to DaNang, a stunning coastal city in the middle of Vietnam where my Mother was born. I’ll post up some pictures and stories soon.

Enjoy this ao dai which was sewn by my Aunt!









August 2014



OUTFIT: The Vietnamese Ao Dai Series!

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This week, I’ll be photographing a series of ao dai that my Aunt tailored over these past few years. If you walk into my Aunt’s closet, your jaw will drop. I don’t know how she does it, but every day she sews a new dress while also working her day job as a dentist. There must be hundreds of dresses hanging in the closet adjacent to her room. After getting lost in all the satin, silks and watercolor patterns, I noticed a pile of elaborate ao dai embroidered with sequins, flowered designs and hand-painted drawings. I tried one on at my Aunt’s insistence and it happened to surprisingly fit me like a glove.

Ao Dai is the traditional dress for Vietnamese women. During my Mom’s generation, the ao dai was the standard uniform for girls in high school. Today, there are still some traditional schools that enforce this standard, but it is quite rare to see anyone walking in an ao dai down the street. For the most part, everyone is westernized in style of dress. There’s a phenomenal movie that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in Vietnamese film called The White Silk Dress (Ao Lua Ha Dong), where the pristine white ao dai becomes a deeper symbolism of Vietnamese culture and society.

In my opinion, the ao dai is one of the most beautiful traditional dresses. Why? It’s forgiving, it’s flattering and it’s feminine. The dress is cut at all the right places to emphasize a lovely shape, but it’s not revealing. The ao dai is modest, but it gives the beholder much to imagine. I would wear the ao dai every day if it was practical for my lifestyle. It makes me taller and I have never ever seen anyone look unflattering in an ao dai. It elongates your frame and creates a simple but sophisticated look.

I have inherited many ao dai dresses from my family over the years – it’s a bit of a family tradition. Stay in touch this week to see some of the incredible Vietnamese handiwork that I’ll be featuring on the blog!





August 2014