Like many of my fellow bloggers, and some of the most incredible photographers of all time (Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jay Maisel are two of my greatest inspirations), I photograph what happens ‘on the street’. To me, the street is where the real stuff happens. It’s pure, honest, a low-key version of journalism. I rarely set anything up – no posing, lighting, or otherwise, as I prefer to capture what is right in front of me, in the most genuine way I can – because it’s usually already perfect (and if it seems imperfect, it’s still somehow perfect). Sometimes people respond to my camera or me, sometimes they don’t and go about their way. Either way, I want to capture it, if it’s interesting.
A key reason I love photographing in Asia more than anywhere else is that SO much happens on the street. People live a good portion of their lives out in the open. Sometimes you see more than you want or things you wish you never saw. In my years of documenting Asia, I’ve seen everything from babies pooping through bottomless onesies to tooth extractions (without anesthesia) to animal sacrifice – yikes! I’ve also seen some of the most touching, beautiful, funny, striking moments happen right before my eyes – and it was almost always completely unintentional that I witnessed these moments. (Mostly) beautiful little accidents.
Now that we live in Hong Kong, we have the great fortune of being no more than a few hours away from almost anywhere else in Asia. So three weeks into our move here, Mark and I headed to Vietnam.
Ever since I visited north Vietnam several years ago (Hanoi, Sapa and the surrounding region), I’ve wanted to see the (relatively) contrasting south. My prior trip north holds a special place in my heart. I loved the people, the food, the French-inflected culture, hiking through stunning rice paddies and mountains, the burgeoning art scene. Charming, rough around the edges, reflective of another time. I took home a few incredible paintings for a song, along with countless memories and images. If you like, please check out some of my favorite images at my photography-only website: http://www.debfong.com/
On this most recent trip, we focused our attention on Ho Chi Minh City, a city that is quite distinct from Hanoi. And of course, I quickly ventured out onto the streets.
First impressions? Sprawling, modernizing (but still with heavy doses of the past and the traditional), highly social. At 10:30 on our first night, we headed out for a late dinner by way of a park that was teeming with college-age students. Teeming! Brimming on the periphery with tiny grillmasters hawking skewers of meat. By the time we headed back to the Sofitel after dinner, the park showed no signs of vacating. Cafés are similarly packed, even in the middle of the day. Groups of men can often be found outdoors, huddled over a game or just slinging back some bia hơi, local draft beer.
As in many other places in Asia, lots of cooking (and of course eating) happens right on the street or sidewalk, and of course in the endless markets. The wafting of spices, meat, and seafood hitting a hot pan mix with moped fumes in the heat of summer – making for a heady swirl of scents that will make you strangely want to both eat everything and also head immediately for fresh air! Exercise some caution when selecting a street food stall or vendor, but if you’re careful, you’ll be treated (safely) to delightful renditions of grilled ground pork skewers, traditional pho, and other treasures. Fresh coconut water (a saving grace on a dreadfully hot day, even if you do look like a total tourist), can be enjoyed fresh out of the shell, for about 20,000 Vietnamese dong (or less than 1 USD – yes, the conversion, and the relative value of the VND, are a bit crazy). More on the amazing local food and markets in future posts.
Of course, there are those iconic Vietnamese hats known as nón lá, conical by design to help shield from both sun and rain. I love watching women wearing these hats go about their business, especially when balancing bags of goods on their shoulders or pushing various cargo in cleverly crafted, wheeled carts or bicycles.
And the buzzing. It’s the most indelible, visceral impression. Mopeds abound everywhere. You can feel the street buzzing underneath your feet, and I promise you’ll still hear the buzzing and smell the fumes for days (if only in your memories)! One needs to learn the art of jaywalking through endless mopeds, and one learns it quickly…or else. Traffic lights exist, but throughout most of the city, you still need to figure out how to cross the street without getting yourself killed (or more likely if you are hit, slightly maimed). The key is to walk steadily and slowly. Don’t panic and run or try to get out of their way – that’s how accidents happen. They will expertly navigate around you, without any of your help, thank you very much.
One wonders how more moped-on-moped accidents don’t happen more often. In fact, they do happen – I witnessed one as I was imbibing a traditional Vietnamese hot coffee within the convivial walls of Thuc Café on Pasteur. Not to fret – a friendly patron outside the cafe immediately ran to their aid. And fortunately, folks drive slowly here, so there were only a few scrapes to speak of. Unfortunately, while helmets are required by law here, most cannot afford more than very cheap versions made in China that offer little to no real protection.
I was told by a local private guide, a young man named Hai, that many young Vietnamese like him head to Ho Chi Minh City to try to ‘make it’, and very few head north to places like Hanoi. Having visited both, I can say there are some clear distinctions. As he alluded, Hanoi is more reminiscent of the past, while Ho Chi MInh City looks more to the future. Like other emerging cities (including to some extent, Hanoi), Ho Chi Minh is a city of contrasts – amalgamating the old and the new, the east and the west, relative poverty and wealth. One thing is for sure – Vietnam is a country of great promise, and it will be fascinating to watch its continuing transformation – especially at street level.
Come along with me as I share the rest of my journey in Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding region..