Day 1 - 11th June
I first met Nico in the lift of our hotel. At first glance, he made a mockery of my typical notions of a photographer. I’d pictured someone with one or two cameras slung around their neck, sporting a leather vest and a belt loaded with essential gear. All he had was a nondescript pale blue tote bag.
His simplicity and humility oddly matched the image of Vietnam I’d formed in my head during the two hours since our landing: a country not particularly known for its high fashion.
The streets were lined with piles of bric-a-brac, amidst which people squatted or rummaged, and soldiers in faded, pale-green uniforms sporting the yellow star on a red background, the national symbol of this socialist country. The road traffic appeared to follow no rules, as our driver seemed to ignore red lights, traffic signs, and vehicles going higgledy-piggledy. Many people walked, carrying everything from building materials to foodstuffs. Eventually, we turned off the main road into a much busier area, clearly a run-down suburb, a good distance from the city of Hà Nội. The road was in poor condition, and every pothole jolted us. The buildings resembled ruins, but people were everywhere. Every so often, we’d pass little booths with a uniformed figure inside, who’d watch our car expressionlessly and maintain eye contact as we slowly drove by. Memories of East Germany or North Korea sprang to mind. It was all becoming a bit much; there was a melodramatic moment when I thought I might never leave this place alive. Our car then went the wrong way round a roundabout, made a U-turn, and parked sideways next to other parked vehicles, and suddenly, we were at our hotel. Here? You’ve got to be having a laugh.
The man in the lift and I exchanged a brief, subdued “Hi” and silently headed to the lobby. He fumbled for a cigarette and vanished towards the street. Another colleague, also attending the photo workshop, was already waiting in the lobby. Roughly the length of a cigarette break later, our organiser, Heba, appeared, bringing the lift man with her. Our second “Hi” was considerably warmer, judging by his cheeky grin.
By this time, he must’ve completely sussed me out: my modern digital camera with its disproportionately large zoom lens, my very continental European attire, which, once we left the fridge-cold, air-conditioned hotel, would be drenched in sweat after a few steps towards our first photo location, my inability to process all the new impressions leading me to wildly snap touristy shots from odd, tilted angles, zooming in here, zooming out there. His grin seemed to have pre-empted all this.
Looking back, a few years earlier: “I’d like to buy a Canon EOS 5.” “Why?” A mate’s brother guided me through his photo shop to a display case filled with various cameras and even more accessories; he wasn’t in it for a quick quid, he wanted to give sound advice. After discussing my plans to take photos on my upcoming holiday for about an hour, I left without a camera but with two brochures from Sony and Olympus. Back then, we were planning a road trip from San Francisco via Los Angeles, Palm Springs, the Grand Canyon and some other less grand canyons, ending in Las Vegas. Not wanting to make too many detours from the main route to every pretty rock, cactus or tree, a powerful zoom lens would bring the distant close. If the camera had enough pixels, I could still crop it to fill the screen with decent quality. Or so I thought. So after a few days of pondering, that mate delivered my first camera with a detachable lens, a Sony Alpha7R, with a whopping 7Kx5K pixels.
“We could just glue your lens in place!”, Heba suggested. The essence of street photography is capturing people’s everyday lives in their natural setting – not surreptitiously from a distance but up close and personal. Close enough that the subjects definitely notice they’re in the spotlight but still at a respectful distance. This requires including the entire context in which they move. A fixed 25mm or 35mm lens would be ideal.
But, concerned about packing too much and worried about potential theft, I’d only packed this one zoom lens. Sure, it could be set to 25mm or 35mm, but I often found myself capturing distant objects to show the family back home.
Unbeknownst to me, Nico watched and made his own judgements. In the end, we didn’t need to use the duct tape that might have fixed the lens. Eventually, I embraced the philosophy of street photography and mostly took close-up shots.
The First Evening
Our initial walk around the city took us past buildings whose glory days were clearly behind them. The faded mustard-yellow hues of once French-colonial facades were now overrun with evergreen vines. We wound our way through narrow alleys, past dark courtyards between buildings where not a light or lamp was to be found. Only the faint glow emanating from the windows of these courtyards enabled us to make out some form of silhouette.
“This type of altar is quite typical for Vietnam,” Nico commented, his eyes having quickly adjusted to the darkness. Our journey took us on to a square with a church resembling a smaller concrete version of Notre Dame.
Before us, various groups sat on small plastic stools – a peculiar sight until Nico grabbed one, yanked it from a pile and plonked himself right in front of one of the groups. We followed suit. A lady brought us beers and a plate of seeds, which we cracked open with a hint of scepticism. It then dawned on us that this was some sort of pub.
Public Square by the Lake
(Quảng trường Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục)
It’s the weekend and the streets around the lake are closed to traffic. At every barrier, two uniformed guards sit in the dark while the city’s vibrant life carries on around them. Our task is to capture the atmosphere, but I only dare to take photos of buildings or lights. There’s no way I’m photographing the uniformed officers. The people here are unfamiliar, and with my continental height of over 1.8 metres, I stick out like a sore thumb. Around 10 p.m., the hustle and bustle dies down, the pavements empty, and we head back to the hotel. And so, my first night on Asian soil comes to an end.