Published September 2012 in Groove Korea
News of two Korea-based English teachers who died while backpacking in Vietnam in late July and early August has shaken the local expat community. Friends Kari Bowerman, 27, of the U.S. and Cathy Huynh, 26, of Canada had just begun their week-long vacation when they suddenly fell ill and passed away due to unknown causes.
One month after their deaths, many questions are left unanswered about what happened to them. Groove Korea spoke with several friends of the girls, including one who was in contact with Cathy via Skype and phone in the hours before her death.
“We need to continue bringing attention, spreading awareness, and pushing for answers,” said the friend, who has asked to not be named. “These lovely and special girls cannot and will not be forgotten. This could have happened to any of us, and we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
It was 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning in Korea when a friend received a Skype message from Cathy Huynh, who was vacationing in Vietnam with her friend Kari Bowerman. “Are you on?” the message read. “It’s an emergency.”
Cathy was panicked and urgently needed to get in contact with Kari’s family. Kari’s health was in serious condition and a relative had to come to Vietnam as soon as possible, Cathy told her friend.
On Monday, July 30, the day after arriving in the small coastal town of Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa Province, some seven hours northeast of Ho Chi Minh, she and Kari had fallen ill and took a taxi to a nearby military hospital. Cathy, who could speak Vietnamese, suspected at the time they might have had food poisoning, according to the friend, and told doctors that both were tired and her friend had thrown up several times during the day. “The first hospital they were at, Kari was gasping for air. Something was up and she wasn’t feeling well,” her friend said of that conversation with Cathy. A doctor at the military hospital later told Vietnamese media that Kari had been writhing upon being admitted. The friend said that Cathy was given medication and fell asleep.
“They were in beds next to each other, and they got a little sleepy. And when she (Cathy) woke up, Kari was gone,” the friend said.
News reports said that after some 10 minutes, Kari’s condition had worsened enough that she was transferred to a general hospital.
Cathy was discharged the same evening and headed to Khanh Hoa Province General Hospital, to find her friend in grave condition.
“At that point, they (doctors) said that her condition had gotten really serious. She was unconscious, incubated, on a respirator,” the friend said. She said Cathy described the hospital as “not a really good place to be around.”
“Cathy told me … ‘Man, this is a scary place. This is where people go to pass away,’” the friend said. “When she got to the hospital … it had gotten so serious that they told Cathy, ‘Since you’re a friend you can’t do anything. You need to get a hold of a family member.’”
So Cathy returned to her hostel, where the two shared a room, to access the Internet, and that’s when she got in touch with the friend in Korea.
Using contact info in Kari’s smartphone, Cathy was able to get in touch with Kari’s sisters, Ashley Bowerman and Jenny Jaques, who then tried to figure out how to come to Vietnam.
Cathy told the friend that she would go to the hospital first thing in the morning to relay the news and then call her back in eight or nine hours. They hung up.
But by the time Cathy returned to the hospital the next day, Kari had suffered acute respiratory failure as her blood pressure dropped to zero, and she passed away at 10:40 p.m., according to news reports.
Cathy called the friend back around 9:30 a.m. and told her the news.
“She was very calm. Both Kari and Cathy were very strong girls. The first time she called me she was very panicked, nobody knew what to do. But when she called me again, I knew as soon as she started talking. She had a very calm voice … I knew she didn’t have anything good to say just by the tone of her voice,” the friend said.
“I broke the news to a lot of people and everyone (was in) shock. Just complete shock and disbelief. I think everyone is still in shock.”
Cathy called the family to deliver the news and spent the day talking to police and relaying as much information as she could, the friend said. Since she was told by the hospital that she couldn’t do much as a non-family member, her usefulness was limited, but said she would try to contact the local U.S. Embassy to figure out what to do about Kari. She called the friend back at about 8:30 p.m. that night.
“She told me that she’d spent most of the day talking to the police and telling them what they did hour by hour, what they ate, where they went,” the friend said.
Cathy’s return flight was scheduled for Thursday, and having lost a friend, she was ready to go home, the friend said. But with many questions still unanswered in their investigation, the police did not allow Cathy to leave.
“At that point she was also very worried because the police did not want her to leave the city. She couldn’t leave the city until they could find out more about what happened … and she was worried about that (because) she didn’t have enough money.”
Cathy’s main concern at the time was not her own well-being, the friend said, but arranging for finances to stay a few days longer in Nha Trang. The friend agreed to wire enough money to Cathy and the two were figuring out how to perform the transfer.
“I do remember we talked for maybe about 10 minutes, and later on in the conversation she said she still felt sick,” the friend said. “And when she was walking around on Tuesday … she said just walking felt like she had just run a marathon, that she was very winded. That struck me as very odd.
“Both of them were pretty healthy girls and they ran in races and were pretty athletic. So it was very strange that she was having respiratory issues just like Kari was. At that point she didn’t make it a huge deal that she was sick. It (the conversation) was just to get her money to get her back to Korea.”
As she was in the middle of a class, the friend promised to call Cathy back as soon as possible. Half an hour later, she tried to return the call, but there was no answer. She sent Cathy a message asking her to call back whenever she had time.
Time ticked by, and by 3 a.m., Cathy had not called or gone online.
“I was starting to get really worried. She was calling me in nine-hour intervals…So Wednesday night I had decided that in the morning if I haven’t heard from Cathy, I need to contact the embassy or do something and figure out what was going on or where she is.
“In the meantime I was constantly checking their Facebook pages…Cathy was pretty active on Facebook and Instagram. At the beginning of her trip she was posting lots of photos and doing lots of stuff, but it reached a point where she wasn’t posting anything.”
In Canada, Jetty Ly, a close family friend, used to speak to Cathy every day, and spoke on Skype with her on July 27, when she had just arrived in Vietnam. “She spoke about how much fun she was having,” she said. Their usually frequent contact had become sparse. “I had this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, an inkling that something was not right, because she did not email me as she did literally every day,” she said. “My last message to her was, ‘Are you alive?”
Then Ly posted on July 30, Ontario time, to Cathy’s Facebook wall, asking for any information regarding Cathy’s trip in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the friend in Korea gave up and went to bed at 3, and woke up at 7 or 8. She logged in that morning to see Ly’s and other friends’ posts on Cathy’s page.
“Some of her friends in Canada had found out and they were posting ‘RIP Cathy,’ so I found out about her death on Facebook. Absolute worst way to find out.” On Wednesday, Aug. 1, Cathy had taken a taxi back to the hospital after she “complained of tiredness,” the hostel owner told Vietnamese media. She was stable upon being admitted, but then suffered serious respiratory failure and blood pressure loss. Her body went into shock and she died early the next morning at 2:45 a.m. on Aug. 2, the media reported.
In Canada, Cathy’s brother had first gotten news from the embassy around noon on Aug. 1 that Cathy had slipped into a coma. Hours later, Ly was with the family when they received the later call from the embassy with news of Cathy’s passing. “I will never forget her mom’s scream and falling to the ground in agony. I will never forget the cold and numb feeling I felt (when) we first found out. Till this day, it has been surreal and quite honestly, I still don’t believe it,” she said.
“A lot of people were calling me at that time,” asking if the news was true, the friend in Korea said. “I came to find out later that … she didn’t let her family know what was going on. I don’t think she told anyone else about the situation other than me and Kari’s sister.”
The friend, who saw Ly’s post, was able to contact Cathy’s family in Canada.
“They had no idea about the situation that I knew about,” the friend said. “At that point it was just initial shock. They were talking to the embassy, but that conversation was mostly me telling them everything I knew, and (about) getting a hold of her school and telling them the situation.”
Kari’s family did not travel to Vietnam but worked with U.S. officials to make arrangements. After an autopsy was performed, Kari’s sister Jenny Jacques had the body cremated in Ho Chi Minh since transporting her body would have cost a weighty $12,000, she told U.S. media. Though the family changed their minds and tried to stop the cremation in order to have further tests performed, by that time it was too late. Afterward, the Vietnamese government delivered Kari’s ashes on Aug. 22 and belongings some time before that to the family. Two friends here told Groove Korea that they collected Kari’s belongings from her apartment in Seoul and shipped them to her family. A private funeral service was scheduled for Aug. 25 in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
The family has told media that Kari’s cell phone, which they thought could hold clues in pictures and messages as to what Kari was doing before her death, was not included in the belongings they received. The friend in Korea said that in later calls, Cathy admitted that the phone “got lost somehow during the chaos of everything. I really wish we could find it now,” she added.
Huynh’s mother, brother and uncle arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday, Aug. 4, to arrange the repatriation of her daughter’s body to Canada. Her mother, Huynh Thi Huong, refused to consent to an autopsy or blood test as the two travelers had apparently died from the same cause and one autopsy was already performed, as well as to keep the body intact for transport back to Canada, media said.
Vietnamese media reported speculation from various doctors at the hospitals that treated the girls about the cause of death, including one doctor who said Cathy may have died from drinking too much wine.
According to the reports, her mother refuted the idea, saying Cathy drank sometimes at parties but never heavily on vacation. She instead put the blame on the hospital that treated her, as Cathy died over 12 hours after being admitted.
Cathy’s body, in a coffin, was placed in a pagoda in Ho Chi Minh and a traditional Vietnamese funeral service was held before the family accompanied Cathy’s body back to her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, on Aug. 10.
Looking for answers
“There are so many questions that need to be answered,” the friend said. “When I talked to Cathy, she didn’t even know what it was or what could have caused it. She was just as confused as the rest of us as far as what was happening.”
A report by the province’s health department said both girls died of blood circulation failure, though the cause of it remained unknown.
As of press time, the families were still waiting on Kari’s autopsy results, which typically take two weeks to analyze, to be announced from Hanoi, in hopes to shed light on the cause of the girls’ deaths.
Yet two weeks following her death, Kari’s autopsy samples sat preserved in Khanh Hoa, where the girls died, with the Hanoi doctors saying that police there still hadn’t paid the fees for transporting the samples. They were finally transported on Aug. 14 but it would take another two weeks for the results to be released. However, a forensic examiner told Vietnamese media that the extended time of preservation may affect the results, even if the samples were well preserved.
“The embassy has yet to give a firm date on when autopsy results will be released. They said ‘two weeks’ as of Aug. 1, but we have yet to receive the results,” Jason Von Seth, Kari’s high-school best friend who is in close contact with the family, said on Aug. 21.
Cathy’s mother finally consented to an autopsy once Cathy’s body arrived in Canada, but similarly, the coroner in Hamilton told Canadian media that conducting it was limited because of the embalming methods used to prepare her body for transport. The results, which could take up to 40 days to process, had yet to be released as of press time, Cathy’s brother Michael confirmed to Groove Korea.
When asked if Cathy’s family and friends seemed optimistic about the autopsy results, Ly said: “To be quite honest, no. There are a lot of factors working against us.” Ly said Cathy’s friends in Canada were still feeling scared, hurt and saddened. “Until we are able to figure out what exactly happened, we will not be able to move on.”
Cathy’s body was placed in a funeral home on Aug. 12 for viewing and on the following day about 200 friends and family members attended a funeral service in Hamilton as Cathy was laid to rest, Michael said.
The family has decided to freely share their story with the media “to help get answers in the mysterious death of both girls, and prevent it from happening to others,” he said.
‘Any one of us’
Friends here expressed concerns to Groove Korea that Vietnamese authorities seemed to be trying to play down the event, which they find important to publicize to raise awareness. “Now that both girls have gotten home, both of their bodies are back in North America, it’s getting to the point where there are still a lot of questions; we still don’t know what happened,” the friend said. “It’s almost like the Vietnamese government is trying to forget about it and sweep it under the rug, so it’d be great to bring awareness to this issue and somehow try and get answers from someone – from Vietnam, from embassies, from whoever.
“This easily could have been any one of us in Korea, or any expat.”
Ly, who is close to Cathy’s family but was not commenting on their behalf, says the Canadian government and embassy was very supportive from the beginning, helping Cathy’s family with appropriate letters and paperwork and “smooth the transition” to repatriate Cathy’s body. But as for the Vietnamese government, she said it has not provided them with much information.
“After leaving the hospital after Kari’s death, Cathy was interviewed and explained hour for hour what they did, ate, drank etc. but these details have not been communicated through,” she said. “The Vietnamese government has to do what they have to do, which is to protect their tourism so that foreigners are not scared to visit their beautiful country; I can appreciate their agenda.
“Our agenda, on the other hand, is to protect our future citizens, friends and family from ever meeting this fate and having to go through this.”
Supporting the families
Friends in Canada and the U.S. have set up online fundraisers to help the girls’ families with transport, funeral and related expenses. “Kari’s Army,” created Aug. 3, surpassed its $10,000 goal on Aug. 21. Kari’s high-school best friend Jason Von Seth also collected $3,000 for the family through a PayPal account.
Cathy’s high-school friend Jason Gallant set up “Bring Cathy Huynh home” to raise $40,000. Created Aug. 2, the project raised over $25,000 as of Aug. 22.
Meanwhile, friends in Korea plan to throw a party to raise funds on Friday, Sept. 14, at Sin Bin Sports Pub in Itaewon, Seoul. There will be a 50-50 raffle and beer pong tournament, and 50 percent of the sales of all Long Island Iced Teas purchased throughout the night will be sent to Kari and Cathy’s families.
“Anyone and everyone is welcome to attend. Kari and Cathy were both very social and had so many friends, and would definitely say, ‘the more, the merrier,’” said co-organizer Megan McAfee.
Friday Night Fundraiser for Cathy and Kari
Where: Sin Bin Sports Pub in Itaewon
When: Friday, September 14 from 8 pm
Featuring: 50-50 raffle, beer pong tournament, 50% of Long Island sales to go towards the families
For information, search the fundraiser’s name on Facebook.
For the fundraiser dedicated to Kari Bowerman, visit
For the fundraiser dedicated to Cathy Huynh, visit