It was my Wife’s choice, Vietnam. It was my choice to go to China and she seems to think that for every choice I get, she gets two. Last time it was India, this was now her choice again. I shouldn’t complain, she could so easily have picked Weston-Super-Mare. So, Vietnam, cue thoughts of arriving on a Huey blasting out Ride of the Valkyries, adopting my best Robert Duvall impression and exclaiming that I “love the smell of Napalm in the morning”. As it was her choice I left it up to her to decide when to go and what we’d do when there. I just wasn’t invested in the idea. She likes to go somewhere hot and sunny in February, to cure the winter blues. In February it’s the dry season in Vietnam…I think that is the extent of the research that she did. Next thing I know we’re booked on a Group Tour for a whistlestop holiday taking in all the major sights. Great stuff.
Thing is, I’m not sure the dry season is best. It’s Winter for a start, and with a week or two to go checking the weather forecast for Hanoi and seeing rain and temperatures of about 8C it kind of dawned on us all too late of course. El Nino was perhaps to blame, wreaking havoc across the World. A deep low pressure over China and high pressure to the west over India was drawing cold air down from Siberia. Apparently it snowed in the Mountains of western Vietnam, the first time for 30 years or so. We landed in Hanoi and were greeted with damp cool air…and featureless grey skies.
After a day to orientate ourselves with a flying visit to Hanoi’s major sights, a Mausoleum to the late leader Ho Chi Minh being the main event, we met the rest of the guys on our tour. Much like China and India it was a mixed bunch from the UK, Canada, Australia and the USofA, all ages. Our tour guide, Ahn, a man who grew up close to Hanoi shortly after the Vietnam War, who would eventually regale us with many tales of what his father and uncle did fighting with the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong during the War (all told with a certain appreciation for the sensibilities of his western clients and an understanding that there are two sides to every story…especially war).
The following day we set off on a long coach ride to the infamous Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, featuring about 2000 Limestone Karst Islands spread over an area of roughly 1500km2. Our boat was waiting to take us on a 24 hour cruise around the islands. The weather was dismal, but thankfully the smiles on the crew of the boat more than made up for it. One thing we did take away from our visit were memories of just how friendly the Vietnamese people are.
As a nation they’ve been fighting for their land for over 1000 years. There is no love lost with the Chinese here, having been occupied by them for much of that time. Then it was the turn of the French, who after leaving Vietnam to concentrate their energy on fighting Hitler in WWII, subsequently persuaded the USA to let them have Vietnam back as a colony after the War in the Pacific ended. A complicated chain of events led to Ho Chi Minh ousting the French and then making a deal with the Soviet Union, dividing the country in two between the Pro-Soviet North and the Pro-US South. The Vietnam War ensued, a proxy war that was more to do with the two Superpowers fighting for their ideology with the lives of the Vietnamese than anything else, a war which devastated the country and even today still kills thousands each year as they unwittingly stumble upon unexploded ordnance. Despite all of this, these people want to move forward, they want to grow and they want to be happy. It shows on their faces.
Ha Long Bay was an amazing place. I had been looking forward to photographing it since the day we booked the trip. My thought that I’d be capturing images of a glorious sunset between the islands was quickly extinguished. The light was dull, a tripod was useless on account of the rocking boat, and you couldn’t, at times, see more than a couple of kilometres. I had to change my idea of what I was going to shoot. In such conditions one can only really do one thing, think in monochrome and think graphically. Within about 30 mins of being on board I’d already decided that I wanted to create a collection of images that were not typical for this location, a collection that was somewhat raw and dirty…and dark, as if shot on film. So, that is what I started shooting, images that could best represent that decision. I’d enhance the images in post-process by intentionally darkening the skies and by adding a significant amount of grain. Funnily enough (warning: photographic geekery incoming), shooting in this environment helped me to discover just how incredibly sharp the Fujinon 55-200 lens is at f/5.6. Typically I shoot with this lens at f/8-f/11, but the rocking boat and the poor light meant I had to open up the aperture and ramp the ISO. It was only when I got home that I realised how sharp the images are, even at ISO800/1600…something that was irrelevant after I’d finished processing as that wiped away any hint of sharpness, but even so. Job done.
Here is a link to the full set of images called ‘Tales of Ha Long Bay‘
Next it was another long bus ride back to Hanoi to catch our overnight train to Hue, the old capital. I’m a relative newcomer to overnight train journeys, although when at University I did spend a Summer in America and did an overnight on an Amtrak back to New York, in a seat, no bed. India was the first time I’ve slept in a sleeping compartment and I really enjoyed it. This train was no different really. Four bunks to a room (1st Class travel!), a small table, and a toilet at either end of the carriage. Not the nicest toilets in the world, but when you’ve spent a few hot days at Glastonbury, anything else is luxury. I had a really good night, others didn’t.
The reason to visit Hue was to see the old ‘Forbidden City’, not unlike The Forbidden City in Beijing, except this one was virtually destroyed during the Vietnam War. Slowly it is being rebuilt. The murky weather was lingering and so I decided to concentrate on capturing small details, although I did take some wider angles. None of those are particularly successful, but I’ve shared some anyway in the links below. Next up was Hoi An…
Hoi An, what a contrast. Most people I know who have been to Vietnam love Hoi An, I can see why. It is situated a kilometre from one of the Top 10 beaches in the World, it’s relatively clean and modern whilst retaining many old structures, faithfully restored and maintained. This is where you come to have a new suit tailored in less than 24 hours. I bought some new glasses that cost about 1/3rd of what they would in the UK and that only take my eyes about 2 days of solid wearing to get used to. I now have a way to feel drunk without the threat of a hangover. Bargain. There are lovely restaurants (seriously the food here is some of the best I’ve ever tasted) and the bars are lively with western travellers. There is a street market every night and visitors can be punted around on small boats like they do in Venice or Cambridge. Very civilised. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, it felt false. We spent 3 days there visiting a farming project (very good, learned how to make delicious pancakes) and the beach (stormy). On our day off from the tour Lisa and I hired a moped and headed into the country, getting as far as the mountains on the horizon and only falling off once. We even got attacked by thousands of cuddly fluffy ducks. Great fun and it was nice to get off the beaten track and ride through villages where children ran out of their homes to wave and say hello. Riding back along the highway wasn’t quite as much fun.
After 3 days of relative comfort it was a very early 4am start to catch a flight to Saigon and some welcome heat. The temperature there was nearer 35C rather than the 8-15C we had been used to. From the Airport we were bussed to the Mekong Delta where we took a river boat cruise to a garden and a local factory that manufactured sweets (very interesting), an overnight stay, then followed by an early morning visit to the floating market that wasn’t there (it was Tet, Vietnamese New Year, so no-one turned up to sell their produce!) and then a fascinating visit to the Cu Chi tunnel complex, created by the Viet Cong and used to great effect against the South Vietnamese and American forces in the War. Some of the traps we were shown don’t bear thinking about though, it truly was hell for the western backed forces. It was then a relatively short bus ride to Saigon to finish the tour with a visit to some of the sights that featured prominently in the fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War together with a visit to the War Museum. I won’t go into what is there, but it is a propaganda machine, even if the majority of events it depicts (together with very graphic images) did happen. Tet was also upon us and that night we joined many thousands of Vietnamese down by the waterfront to watch the New Year fireworks.
I can’t say that this was a particularly successful trip photographically. I like the Ha Long Bay images and some of the others depicting typical Vietnamese scenes, the people, a bit of the landscape and some curiosities, but it was a struggle. When you are on a Group Tour the tour waits for no man. Sure, you can fire off a few images, but there is no waiting for great light or for something interesting to happen, there is a schedule to keep! Which is why it really did feel like a Ride of the Valkyries metaphorically speaking, swooping in from the heavens, raging around at speed and at high volume and leaving a trail of destruction in your wake. But then I think I don’t travel just to take photos and sometimes it’s hard to remember that. Travelling is about experiencing, and when you’ve got your face in a camera viewfinder all of the time, you miss everything else around you…and in Vietnam if you don’t keep your wits about you you’ll miss a lot…or get run over by 100 mopeds.
More images from the trip are to be found by following these links to specific collections. Whilst there I also entertained myself by taking some not too serious selfies. There is a link for those also.
Chuc Mung Nam Moi.