Friday, October 24, 2008

The Forest Butterflies

By far the most common butterfly species we saw were from the Satyridae family: Browns and Arguses. They are usually small, brown and grey with eye spots and as they are not powerful fliers stay close to the ground making them easy to miss! 2 species in particular were often hard to tell apart, Ypthima imitans and Ypthima baldus.  Luckily each team had at least 1 experienced scientist with them to help with the identification. 

Butterfly or moth?

One of the first things we learnt on this Earthwatch project was how to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth as both would by flying along the transects. This proved surprisingly more diffcult than I had thought!

1. Butterflies tend to have clubbed antennae while moths antennae taper to a point
2. Butterflies are able to fold their wings up vertically over their back, where moths often hold their wings horizontally.
3. Butterflies tens to have large, more colourful wings than moths, although many moths are large and colourful also.
4. Butterflies fly during the day, while moths are nocturnal.

Hill Tribes of Sapa

There a hundreds of minority groups who live in the mountains around Sapa, the French called them Montagnards (highlanders or mountain people). Each tribe has it's own language, customs, mode of dress and spiritual beliefs and it has been one of the undoubted highlights of my trip to visit some of their villages and meet them.

Most minority people live a rural / agricultural lifestyle with their houses raised on stilts and finished in natural materials in harmony with the environment. It is a hard life and despite improvements in rural schools and regional healthcare, many minority people marry young, have large families and die young.

The Red Dzao, pictured with me above, are one of the most colourful of the tribes and are easy to recognise due to their red head dress, intricate weaving, silver-coloured beads and coins on their clothing. Like in other parts of Asia, the traditional culture of so many ethnic minority groups are gradually giving way to outside influences, but it seems to be the women who are helping to keep their traditional culture alive, weaving traditional clothing and passing on this knowledge to their daughters.

While an increase in tourism has led to more revenue, cross-cultural understanding, improved infrastructure, such as roads, and employment opportunities such as guides, there is also a downside. Often the minority people themselves are not the main beneficiaries of tourism activities and have no say or control over its development. Tourism also increases litter and pollutants, lead to dependency on the tourist dollar, and potentially the erosion of local values and practices.

A good resource on how to minimise your impact when visiting such villages is

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Steve's Haiku

Butterfly, ah, see!

On the wind, up, down, here, there.

Beautiful; now gone.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lost in the clouds

Arrived in Sapa today around 8:30am absolutely knacked after a very uncomfortable overnight train ride. The mountain town of Sapa is located at 1650m above sea level and minority people from villages all around come to the markets everyday but particularly on the weekend. A huge tourist drawcard is the "Love Market" held every Saturday - a kind of speed dating for the minority people who live in tiny villages dotted around the countryside. Arriving on the Monday I seem to have missed the weekend rush which I was happy about as I it made everything much more intimate. I hired a motorbike and guide who took me to 3 villages nearby. It is an incredible experience to drive on the back of a motorbike from the bottom of the valley from Ban Ho (Tay and Zay village) which is located at 600m up to Sapa and feel the change in temperature and climate from warm and muggy to what feels like an icy chill in Sapa. The road gradually winds through the mountains with no fence between you and the vertical drop on your left side. The scenery is stunning with jaw-dropping views of cascading vertical rice terraces that spill down the mountains like a patch work quilt. As we climbed higher, a thick mist rolled in so visibility was reduced to only a hundred metres or so, and to my left all I could now see was a wall of white fog and the air heavy and chilled. Quite a scary experience but amazingly exhilarating once you got over your initial fears. I truly felt like I was lost in the clouds.

Bear Rescue in Tam Dao

Steve mentioned that there was a bear rescue centre in Tam Dao and I said that I would be up for coming along if it could be arranged. Bears are one of my favourite animals and I am a supporter of Animals Asia Foundation who among other projects are working to end bear bile farming in China. Lien successfully managed to arrange a visit for the Earthwatch team one morning with the help of the Tam Dao National Park Director as it was not yet open to the public.

Once we arrived, I was greatly surprised to find that this was a brand new facility that Animals Asia Foundation had set up to continue their work in Vietnam which I faintly remembered reading about in one of their newsletters but had not put 2 + 2 together that it was the same place. What a wonderful coincidence that it was located right in the very national park that I was visiting!

The facility was extremely impressive and contained quarantine enclosures, a vet surgery and bear houses. Once completed it will be able to house a total of 200 bears. It also plans to use it as a base to raise public awareness about the barbaric practice of bear farming. They even have planted a beautiful herb garden to promote the numerous heal alternatives to bear bile. The staff were very friendly and professional and one of the Bear Managers, Bec, did a fantastic job of showing us around and explaining how it all worked.

Donning gumboots which had to be disinfected as they were sick bears in the surgery, we were lucky enough to see 2 cubs aged about 6 months who had just been rescued from the boot of a car crossing the Laos/Vietnam border. They were absolutely adorable, playing and tumbling over each other - clearly very happy and unaware of what could have been a very horrible fate.

The aim of Animals Asia Foundation is to end bear farming entirely in Vietnam. According to official figures in Vietnam there are currently 4,000 bears incarcerated in tiny cages for bile extraction, the physical and mental suffering that they endure is extreme - and the mortality rate is high.

Check out their website for more info:

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wind, rain and haiku

Woke up this morning to gale force winds and rain - not good for butterfly watching! Lien, the principal investigator, took us instead to visit the local school where we caused a bit of commotion with screams and shouts of "Halo" and "Nice to meet you" from the school kids clamouring around us like we were celebrities! We were invited up to the principal's office (a long time since I've been there!) for tea and he told us a bit about the school. The emphasis for Vietnamese children is to study english and business then on to university level as it is these skills which can help get them a job the easiest. School sizes are small because of the population of the region, (600 people live in Tam Dao village) but they still do not have enough teachers.

The next plan was to visit the local waterfall but with the wind still whipping up a gale and the rain still falling steadily Lien decided the walk would be too dangerous and we were left to our own devices until lunch. So what do you do when it's wet outside and nothing to do? A couple of team members decided to have an international haiku contest with Japanese, Russian and American versions. Lisa managed to top everyone's with a particularly naughty limerick which cannot be repeated on here, but I will publish Steve's haiku about butterflies as soon as I can get him to recite it to me again...

A Mission at Midnight

Each day we are split into 2 groups and each group walks along a1 out of 6 transects which can cover all different types of terrain such as a steep hill, bamboo forest, etc. At the end of the day we are able to have some free time which can include walking to a waterfall, visiting a temple, or or visiting an internet cafe. Last night JF, the french canadian pharmacist, decided that he wanted to set up a moth trap in the abandoned shell of a building perched on the side of a cliff face overlooking a valley. An insect ensthusiast with a particular interest in moths and beetles, JF hoped to obtain specimans for his personal collection. The best time to see these were apparently at around midnight so a few of us decided to check it out.

To prepare for this mission I realised that I would have to employ every defense possible as I was told that the night time brings out a huge array of creepy crawlies that entomologists love including venemous centipedes up to 12 inches long, spiders, snakes and the dread LEECHES that I had been obsessing over, over the past few weeks leading up to the expedition.

I put on my borrowed knee high gaiters (thanks Liz!), two pairs of socks, trousers and poured some Japanese anti-leech agent on my shoes from a fellow Earthwatch team member Hiroshi. I was prepared as I would ever be. However JF's grand plans were foiled by the local police after the tenant of the apparently "abandoned" building complained, and despite having the appropriate paperwork, decided it wasn't worth ruffling the local polices feathers.

All dressed up and no where to go we decided to go for a walk along Transect 4 at night time to see what the night would bring us anyway. We ended up seeing giant snails, frogs, beetles and all sorts of other goodies but the highlight was my first encounter with a leech.

Along the side of the path in the soft dirt there were many, many leeches but they were extremely sensitive to the light. As soon as you shone your torch on them you saw them zip away into the soil. I had no idea these buggers could move so fast! Scarily fast! They looked like long thin slugs (apparently they swell up to twice the size when they feed!!) with a head that was basically a huge sucker with hooks on it to grab unwary passers by.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The adventure begins...

Well, I have figured out that our hotel does not have internet connection so I am sitting in a little internet cafe with the token brit on a busy saturday night in Tam Dao village. ..

The journey here was 2.5 hours by minibus and I was surprised to find that the village was situated 900m above sea level, nestled in hills shrouded in mist. Tam Dao is named after three peaks which are 1400m high. The country side along the road was lined with beautiful tall pine trees, planted by the french, and lush forest and when we stopped to give the engine a rest as the road was so steep, I was delighted to see several butterflies beside the road.

We arrived at the hotel around 4pm and settled in to our rooms, which had an amazing view of the valley below. I also had my first experience with wildlife when I found a huge insect in my room. Luckily I was partnered with Monique, a swiss born american who has been on 25 Earthwatch Expeditions in the last 10 years, a fearless traveller with many years of experience who didn't hesitate in taking out her walking stick determined to find out what it was. It turned out to be a mantis who had taken a liking to our room and the mosquitoes in it so we ended up happy with that arrangement.

The next morning we had a crash course in identifying butterflies and learning about the national park. That afternoon we put these skills into practice and walked along a transect of 1.5 km in which we saw 77 individual butterflies and over 23 species. Lien, the Principal Investigator said that this was less than expected and that this could have been due to poorer weather earlier in the season. Nevertheless, was surprised at the huge variety of butterflies and moths that we saw as well as some interesting looking beetles and stick insects.

We finished the day at 5pm and the team got together for an obligatory beer or three and then had dinner. The food is wonderful, home style, Vietnamese cooking with specialities such as fried frog legs, banana and snail curry and chai otte, a vegetable which seemed like a cross between cucumber and potato. All washed down with several Bia Hanois and an interesting tasting honey wine. Delicious!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Golden Tortoise

It was a hazy 30 degree day in Hanoi and I got up early to have some breakfast and walk around Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword), an enchanting body of water in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the old quarter with huge round colorful globes floating in the air above. Legend has it that a giant golden tortoise stole a magical sword from the Emperor Le Thai To in the mid 15th century and disappeared into the depths of the lake, restoring the sword to its divine owners. Apparently it is good luck if you see one of the rare tortoises that apparently live in the murky waters of the lake, but I didn't see anything apart from a few mysterious ripples on the lake surface...

The lake also provides a useful landmark to orientate yourself with when you get completely and utterly lost walking the streets as I did many times. I stumbled across a spice market trying to find my hotel which reminds me - must look into doing a cooking class when I get back to Hanoi, Vietnamese food is one of my favourites.

Today is officially Day 1 of the expedition and I am planning to meet the team at the rendez-vous point at 1pm. Better get cracking...

One night in Hanoi

Arrived safely in Hanoi this morning at 10am with no issues - it is always a relief to see your bag turn up on the conveyer belt after a connecting flight!

Had plans to try and get some sightseeing in the afternoon but ended up having a 1 hour nap that turned into a 5 hour one by mistake! I think I underestimated how tired I would be but after an 8 hour day at work, 3 hours of frantically packing, then over 13 hours of traveling so it was no wonder I was a little pooped. Still have not figured out how to get a good nights sleep in economy class, if there is such a thing, without resorting to huge quantities of alcohol and/or sleeping pills...does anyone else have the same problem??

Met up with some of my expedition team members tonight at KOTO Restaurant and as was to be expected, they are all incredibly interesting with diverse backgrounds: there was Jean-Francois (JF) the french canadian pharmacist who is the proud owner of the first and only "Green" pharmacy in Quebec! The indomitable token brit, Phil, from Yorkshire an IT worker and avid entymologist on the side who kept up a steady stream of Black Adder quotes throughout the night between swigs of draught Hanoi beer. Steve from Maine USA, a Vietnam Vet who was fresh from a humanitarian mission in Danang as part of Vets With a Mission, helping build a medical centre there. And there was Lisa from Colorado, a ceramic artist and outdoor devotee, no wonder as she lives a stones through away from the Rocky Mountains!

And then there was me: Miss Corporate PA, urban, inner city chick from cosmopolitan Melbourne with far too many shoes and little/no experience of the outdoors - what skills would I be able to bring to the team?? Quickly it was established that if anyone needed to book a nice restaurant in Hanoi at the last minute then I was the person for the job. Phew!

And with that I am off for an early night, looking forward to my first steaming bowl of Pho and strong black Vietnamese coffee for breakfast tomorrow and an early morning walk around Hoam Kiem Lake in the old quarter. Beats a day at the office that's for sure :)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

1 day to go...

 This blog will hopefully be my daily travel diary of my Earthwatch Fellowship experience in Vietnam but I have yet to see how good the internet connections will be at the expedition site so we will see how we go...

Earthwatch expeditions are ongoing research projects confronting critical environmental issues and run in sites across every continent by qualified and respected members of the scientific community.

They allow ordinary non-scientific folk, such as myself, to join in and assist the research team to hopefully increase awareness and understanding of environmental issues and share that with friends, family and work mates back home.

Pretty cool, huh?

Anyway, final preparations are underway.  Bought a nice pair of hiking boots on sale on the weekend, found my passport (!), finished research for new digital camera (Canon Powershot A470 - A$113 from JB Hi-fi)  and last minute packing has been scheduled....for the last minute!

Just need to get through 8 hours of work tomorrow...