"Andrew Wilkinson's Diary Photos "
" VIET NAM IN MY HEART "
OPEN from 01 - 1 - 2013 to 15 - 2 -2013 at AN BINH GALLERY
I first became aware of Viet Nam back in my teenage years, during the late ‘60s, as the horrendous struggles that Viet Nam faced were broadcast on the BBC, and anti-war demonstrations were at their height in the UK. Some while later I was significantly impacted by the iconic image of the nine-year-old Kim Phuc that were emblazoned across the front page of all the newspapers. The impact was deeply shocking, the effect on me profound. I cried for that girl.
Since then I had a place for Viet Nam in my heart and a wish someday to visit.
At the end of working in Singapore for a period in excess of a year, I took the opportunity in December 2011 to come to Viet Nam. During my stay I travelled to Saigon – Vung Tau – Hoi An – Sa Pa – Hanoi – Halong Bay.
My time in Viet Nam, was all too brief and during one season. Because I’m curious about what lies around the next corner I spent hours in each destination walking the streets, without really ever setting foot in the tourist attractions - museums, galleries, mausoleums, cathedrals, and such like. Maybe next time!
Whilst hugely appreciative of a country’s history and symbolic, national structures my interests typically led me away from the main tourist attractions towards the roots of culture – the ‘everyday’ people. I think it’s in the side streets, the markets, cafes and villages where you get closest to the real pulses of a country and experience the raw interface of a people and the roots of their culture.
Nevertheless, I gained a wonderful overview of the country, and I have nothing but admiration for its people. Everywhere I went I was generally greeted with warmth and enduring smiles.
One day, time and money permitting, I would be keen to return to Viet Nam and spend more time there at a slower pace, in different seasons, really getting to know and understand Viet Nam’s ‘Timeless Charm’.
Viet Nam is its people.
To be honest I had absolutely no idea what Viet Nam would be like as a place to visit and I had a few apprehensions about hotels, food and internal travel. Nevertheless, from the seed planted in my heart forty years ago and some recent ‘Rough Guide’ and ‘Lonely Planet’ research I had done, I was eager to go.
My European friends in Singapore and an Australian colleague, who had lived and worked for three years in Viet Nam, all said “Go! You’ll love it!” Having also spoken to a Vietnamese friend in Singapore and some Vietnamese contacts I’d made on Facebook, their messages can be simply summed up in one proud phrase “WELCOME to my country”.
On one level I could almost have made the trip solely on the strength of having once tasted Vietnamese civet coffee, back in Covent Garden, London!
By the time I’d booked my tickets Singapore to Saigon and Hanoi to Singapore the only remaining concern I had was internal travel. I knew that the journey from Hanoi to Sa Pa was not going to be like hopping into the car back in Cambridge and nipping up to, say, Newcastle-on-Tyne in under four hours.
The real issue was that my itinerary was too tight, a fact that my dear Vietnamese friend, Kath, in Singapore had warned me about. I wanted to see as much of Viet Nam as I could in the sixteen days I had available. Given the amount of internal travel I would be doing I didn’t want the aspect of making travel arrangements and buying tickets to deprive me of my time exploring each destination, or for me to be too travel weary. In this regard I am grateful to the acquaintances I had in Saigon, Sa Pa and Hanoi for their valuable inputs and help.
Dressed in no more than shorts and t-shirt, carrying a medium-size holdall and my camera equipment in its backpack, I boarded flight 3K553 leaving Singapore (SIN) for Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) on Thursday, 1st December, 2011.
Other than from the air, Saigon was my first taste of Viet Nam and anticipation was racing through my mind during the taxi ride from the airport towards the centre of Saigon.
I’d pre-booked a hotel purposefully away from the centre, but within easy walking distance of it. I wanted to be amongst the bustle of Saigon life, not insulated by the trappings of 5-star tourist accommodation, luxurious and very welcome as it might have been. Let’s be honest, though, I didn’t have a lot of money to do this trip, either! But that can be a good thing.
It wasn’t long before I experienced what was going to be one of my lasting impressions, traffic! It was the busiest I’d ever seen and, from my logical perspective, traffic simply shouldn’t work! But it did and, seemingly, very well. I heeded the advice I’d picked up and stepped off the pavement into the first gap in the traffic that I saw and slowly, progressively headed off to the other side of the road. It was a novel experience, like being massaged by motorbikes and scooters. If I’d done this back in the UK I would surely have been run down and flattened a hundred times over! I concluded that back home we don’t have the mentality to cope with this and, at least in this respect, Viets demonstrate a greater sense of care and deference.
I enjoyed further traffic experience from the back of a motorbike both during the daytime and at night; maybe it was the novelty, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.
Saigon was a buzz and I was quickly introduced to coffee, delicious local foods and, of course pho! All delicious.
It was here, outside the Bitexco Tower, that my camera fell to the ground and the lens broke clean in two! This was my best, most expensive and versatile lens! I am eternally grateful for the help of Le Thuy, who took me to a Nikon shop to get repairs done and translate for me, but I was not convinced that anyone would have the equipment, facilities or parts required to mend the lens! To his credit the shop technician took my lens and, without much of a word, reached for a screwdriver. He told my friend we should return in two hours – if it works, pay; if it doesn’t work, don’t pay. Simple. It worked, I paid. Life ‘through the lens’ was restored.
What I did notice, without wanting to sound patronising, was the resourcefulness and practical treatment that was applied not only to repairing my lens, but also in general – pavement watch repairs, for example. We’ve lost a good deal of that back in the UK where, for economic reasons, the replacement of whole component parts, as opposed to repair, has had a de-skilling effect at the expense of recycling and sustainability! In the case of my lens I’d be having to get assessments and repairs carried out by the Nikon main workshop in a controlled environment, a process that would take in excess of two weeks!
One of the highlights for me was a trip along a stretch of the Saigon River and into a nearby tributary. I was the only passenger in the boat and for my love of ships I was taken impressively close to some large vessels. From the water I gained a different perspective of life being lived out on the river as well as on the river banks. Clearly there were many poor people making the best they could from small dealings and foraging amongst the tips of rubbish. Many of these people would wave to me as I passed by and present me with the gift of a smile.
Travel to Vung Tau was on a packed minibus. The three-hour journey felt fast and furious as the vehicle dodged potholes and ran over a variety of different road surfaces. On reaching Vung Tau clearly there had been a lot of modern development with good roads and infrastructure.
And then came my reward for the journey – the East Sea! There’s something very special and satisfying about seeing the sea, digging your feet in the sand and doing a little paddling. No matter which country you’re in, the shared experience is generally the same, apart from the temperature!
My hotel room, with panoramic views up and down the coast, immediately overlooked the beach and sea, populated by happy families and punctuated by the happy sound of excited children playing in the surf. Freshly caught seafood to eat was just down the road in a well-patronised restaurant.
The return journey to Saigon was by hydrofoil – comfortable, scenic and quick.
Choices have to be made and some are more difficult than others. After Hanoi I had wanted to visit Nha Trang, a waterfall somewhere that I’d seen in a guide, Dalat, and Hue, but settled on Hoi An. Hoi An is a jewel in the countryside which, unless you knew of its low-lying whereabouts, you might easily – if it were permitted to hire a car - drive straight past it.
This UNESCO heritage city exudes history and charm from the moment you get within a short distance of the centre. Hotel prices were at extremes, even between those that were situated directly opposite each other. I provisionally booked a 2nd floor room that had a balcony and was refurbished in French colonial style, but by the time I’d made up my mind and returned to confirm the booking, it had been sold. I settled for a large room on the ground floor, which had in it, perhaps, the dampest bed I’d ever encountered or might have imagined! But it was cheap. I later concluded that the centre of Hoi An was like a tidal version of Venice and I’d arrived at the backend of the flooding season! No internet at this hotel either, so I spent time in the wifi coffee shops and bars around the city if I wanted to go online.
Having no planned micro-itinerary I picked up a local map of the area and just headed out, walking the streets from one end of the city zig-zagging to the other. I love venturing the byways and alleyways and at one point found I’d ventured a little too easily along a passageway into a courtyard and then into someone’s house! All was well, though! It would seem the Viets are welcoming, courteous, understanding and forgiving.
In Hoi An I was spoilt for choice with food and places in which to eat, generally reserving the evening for my main meal. I regret not having or finding time to enrol on one of a few half-day cooking courses that are run by local cooks, which includes purchasing the required ingredients fresh from the market. Thankfully, delicious bahn mi was readily to hand.
I spent my last afternoon wandering by bicycle in a large loop that took me out via the coast. En route I passed through a fishing village with its wood and thatched houses. It was there that I stopped to say hello to an elderly, very poor couple who were just finishing their meal of fish soup, rice, and a locust. Their home was a simple structure with palm fronds for a roof, a consolidated mud floor, a front and a back door. Without a common verbal language between us, shaking hands and signing with gestures is a refreshingly honest form of communication. Exchanges directly between our eyes fathomed deeply into our souls. I saw a humble couple of integrity, who had worked hard each day of their lives and, I’m sure, had been witnesses to some difficult and painful times. I don’t know what they would have seen in me, but I hope they understood the respect I had for them. We shook hands again and with smiles that conveyed best wishes, I turned to my bike and continued along the way.
Arriving at Cua Dai it was good to be on the beach. There was a wildness about the weather and the fresh sea breeze filled my lungs. I cycled back to Hoi An in anticipation of a satisfying evening meal knowing I’d be spoilt for choice in where I would end up eating.
From Hoi An I went back to Da Nang and took a flight to Hanoi where, after whiling away a few hours, I boarded the night train for my nine-hour journey to Loa Cai, then on to Sa Pa. I shared a four-berth cabin with two others, a quiet girl and a talkative business man, who was on his way to Sa Pa to open up a bar he’d invested in.
On arrival in Lao Cai I hung around the clustered minibuses one of which was my transport to Sa Pa. I was not confident I was on the correct bus until I arrived in Sa Pa itself, about an hour after departure. For all the build-up and anticipation of arriving in this French colonial spa town, high in the northeast mountains – indeed, Fanzipan, Viet Nam’s highest mountain would be the view directly from my hotel window – I was truly stunned! Stunned, standing in the t-shirt and shorts I’d been wearing in sunny Hoi An by the thick fog and temperature that was barely above freezing! In relative terms I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my life!
My first tasks were to check into my hotel, change into my jeans and a jumper, buy a jacket and a hat, procure a heater and find a cup of tea! With my body functioning once again I set off for a recce and to find a local map.
The daytime sun did its best to burn off the fog, but it never really cleared the whole time I was there. But on holidays, just like with photography, there is always something to do and see. A clear view of Fanzipan was not to be one of those things, but Sa Pa and environs did not disappoint.
The markets are busy and interesting with local Viets and minority tribes going about their daily businesses. I joined a small tour group on a half-day walk with a local Hmong tribe girl as guide. She was eighteen and spoke perfectly good English. Coming from a farm that had little surplus produce, she could not afford further education, but supplemented her income being a seasonal tourist guide.
I contacted Thoa, who lived in Sa Pa. We’d never previously met but arranged to have an evening meal together. We chatted and I gathered information for the walk I would later make to Cat Cat. Thoa extended her hospitality by inviting me to have a traditional Vietnamese lunch that she would provide at her house the following day. It transpired that she owned the hotel where we ate a sumptuous lunch served by and, I’m glad to say, shared with some of the staff. I had joked with Thoa that I would return one day to climb Fanzipan! As they say, many a thing said in jest….!
With permit in hand I set out to Cat Cat. It was a wonderful walk, although I sometimes found it hard to say ‘no’ to the many invitations to buy goods from the stalls and houses along the way. Onward to the falls at Tien Sa, where I was also able to get lunch. At one point, as the evening was drawing in, the path leading away from the river I’d been following disappeared, but I’d got myself a rough bearing by which to forage my way through woodland and scrub before picking up a path to complete my circular route via Cau A Lu. From the bridge at A Lu I found myself walking alongside a large group of students heading back to Sa Pa, who had spent the day around Cat Cat as part of their education in the Tourism Industry.
Back to Hanoi by train and to a modest hotel in Ma May, in the Old Quarter, with a top floor en suite room with balcony. It was a good location and meant I could walk straight out into the bustle of Hanoi life and heritage. I did, but not before treating myself to Vitenamese coffee and French toast in a café a few doors along from the hotel.
I sensed the feel of Hanoi was different to that in Saigon and it’s not easy to describe why, without being somewhat generalistic. Saigon felt a little ‘easier’ than Hanoi – perhaps a little closer to my cultural norm, but then Hanoi is the capital and with it naturally would come an aire of the seat of state and government.
My arrival into Hanoi from Sa Pa coincided with the birthday of another contact, Giang, who cordially invited me to celebrate with her and her friends, but not before kindly taking me around some parts of Hanoi on the back of her scooter, including a brief walk around Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. At the birthday celebration I had a wonderful time of feasting and fun. This was the evening destined for me to overcome my awful fear of karaoke!
Perfume Pagoda or Halong Bay? I settled on Halong Bay as a day trip out from Hanoi.
The long journey to Halong Bay was, thankfully, broken by a stop at a pottery and gift outlet, where I could get a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. Most of the time I was chatting to an American lady who works for an AIDs charity in the US. She was also a keen photographer and so our conversation was interwoven by questions from her about camera settings. I was happy to oblige and give my opinion and, if there was any success to my impartations, at least I gave her the courage to try manual settings.
The harbour at Halong Bay was bustling and very different to how I had imagined, even from photographs I’d seen. The view out into the bay was made short by the thick haze, which began only to lift by late afternoon. This was nothing like the tourist images, but then it was December. Reframing my thoughts it wasn’t difficult to appreciate another beauty – they bay had been transformed by the haze into a mystical place from which giant rock stacks would emerge as ghostly figures as we voyaged out.
On board the junk a traditional Vietnamese lunch was served with cold beer. From time to time boats would attend alongside to sell various fruits and drinks. It was hard to resist and the fresh juicy fruit was rewarding. This was just part of the microcosm of life that is sustained both in and by the bay for, indeed, there is a floating village out there.
The junk paused for a while for people to take local boats into a cove as well as to explore the magnificent natural feature, Dragon Cave.
With a short morning to spare my hotel arranged for a driver to take me to the pottery village at Bat Trang. Time was so short that I literally walked as quickly as I could around the various industries that produced items from small hanging charms to giant vases. I was glad to have visited, but would have liked to have spent more time looking at the production processes.
It was with mixed feelings that I travelled by taxi to Noi Bai International Airport. I boarded flight 3K544 leaving Hanoi (HAN) for Singapore (SIN). Any adrenalin that had kept me on the go for the past couple of weeks was now giving way to relaxation and reflection on the flight to Singapore, from where a couple of days I would be returning to the UK.
So much, and yet so little of what is, was packed into sixteen days - sights, smells, sounds, feelings, attitudes, emotions, wonderment, curiosity, each taking their place.
A chapter had been written - or read - but it was not the book itself. The phrase ‘one day…’ often passes through my mind, but I am a notoriously ad hoc reader and sometimes have one or two books out at a time that I dip into!
PREPARING TIME :
31 - 12 - 2012 Visitors