My relationship with Vietnam began badly.
That first trip to Saigon and Da Lat should have turned me off to returning. I booked the trip myself, and back at the start of the millennium, I was still coming out of a very sheltered existence, believing wholeheartedly that everything was as it was, and that nothing could go wrong as long as one was organized and did the homework.
I had no idea of all the things that could go wrong during travel.
Happily, I boarded the flight to Ho Chi Minh city with the itinerary that I’d arranged, all online with a local travel agency.
The hotel room in Saigon had no windows. I was in a box with no light. Knowing that the situation was temporary, although it gave me the creeps, I endured that hotel room for a couple of days.
Da Lat was unexpectedly cold while I was there, and I sat outside in a flimsy sweater writing and developed a cold. On the morning I was supposed to return to Ho Chi Minh by a flight, the travel agency informed me that the flight was “no longer available” and that I had to make do with a car back to the city.
I protested, citing the printed emails of arrangements that had been confirmed and that I had paid for in full. No, they insisted, either take the transportation offered or buy another flight. After a while of arguing back and forth, it was beginning to sound like those childhood quarrels of
“You did it!”
“No, you did it!”
“No, you did it!”
There was nothing I could say that would sway the local ‘service’ provider, other than spend money I’d already spent on yet another flight that I’d already bought. I didn’t yet know that some establishments can change the rules on you after you agree on the terms.
So it was a nine-hour journey in a rickety vehicle with broken air filter system. With a cold, and with the windows rolled down, letting all the dust in, it was a very long nine hours full of sneezing and blowing my nose.
So that was my first trip to Vietnam.
I did not fall in love with it.
But there was something about Vietnam that piqued my curiosity. First, it seemed very difficult to get good photographs.
Second, I loved the food. And, my interactions with the people not related to hotel bookings or transportation arrangements were overall pleasant, friendly.
I liked the rest of the trip apart from the windowless hotel room in HCMC and the way the Da Lat agency changed transport arrangements on me at the last minute.
During that time, I was just beginning to become interested in cultural portraits, photos of people in their natural ways of being. And I found it difficult to find harmony and capture those photos I wanted of Vietnam. I wanted another chance to create those portraits.
So I had to go back.
On the second trip, almost two years later, I traveled to Ho Chi Minh on to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta then north to Hanoi and Sa Pa.
I was not alone. I went with a group of camera nuts. And Vietnam was a little more pleasant with friends to share it with. (Except, in Ho Chi Minh, one of the photographers got his camera snatched by a couple of guys on motorbike. We had to spend hours at the police station. He never got his camera back.)
But Sa Pa opened up Vietnam to those portraits I was searching for. Sa Pa and the hills near Bac Ha was perhaps the farthest north you could get from Ho Chi Minh before you ran out of Vietnam and ran into China. And it was there that I found a gentler, more content people. I began to wonder if I should go to smaller, more ‘road not trodden’ places to find my Vietnam.
So when a friend asked a couple years later if I wanted to go to Da Nang, Hue and Hoi An, I said yes. And because my friend spoke Tieng Viet, I got to enjoy street seafood on plastic chairs and beers with a bunch of local people every day. Banh mi, the baguettes with all manner of delicious stuffings. Gỏi cuốn, the fresh salad in a rice wrapping that you dip into sauce. And of course, pho, fragrant with cilantro and magic with each spoonful of soup.
I also started to relax enough to shoot more adventurously, trying my hand at panning and night photography.
Less than a year later, I went back to Vietnam once more, this time returning to Hanoi and Sa Pa, and then Ha Long Bay.
It was that time when I felt in the imagery that maybe, I finally understood Vietnam. We had a kind of relationship now, a conversation that opened my vision wider to the beauty that lived within the country. There was a balance in the photographs, and harmony, at last.
There was a sense of joy.
And, when I next return, I know that I will be paying more attention.