Thursday, November 30, 2017

Vietnam: Photography and Egotism

A photographic eye

Blue door, Hoi An

New day, new place, new sights - another several dozen photographs. Digital makes it even easier to snap at whim - why not take several versions of each shot? It costs nothing, except my sanity later when I spend hours, days, weeks downloading and trawling through the plethora of pixels.

What for? Mementos, snaps for the album? Of course. And for manipulating into my creative life, into a meaningful composition? Yes, a few will be selected for that glorious end. But the real importance of travelling with a photographic eye is how it transforms how I see a place, a face, a landscape, a detail - it is always seeking meaningful juxtaposition, pleasing proportion, colourful character and tantalising texture. To actively seek aesthetic stimulation, rather than float through as passive recipient. To be an agent, not mere observer, of revelation, hunting and revealing  the lovely and the surprising.

To experience more intensely - that is the purpose of a photographic eye - the photographs are almost incidental.

Egotism (Nha  Trang)

Barber, Nha Trang
We drive for hours through mountains and vegetation ever-changing with the altitude; pines and birches give way to rainforest and creepers of the tropical coast. A quick dip in a turbulent sea, then head towards the markets for food. It is beginning to drizzle.

Along an old wall mirrors are hung, and tarpaulins stretched above - it is a barber shop. Chris needs a haircut so we approach to ask the price - 50,000 dong ($2.50). We all huddle under the tarp as Chris settles into the chair. Five minutes of deft snipping and he is neatly shorn. I ask for a photograph, and the barber and Chris line up, grinning. The barber will not look into the camera.

It's clear when I walk around the market, compulsively lifting the camera to record every fascinating sight, that many local people prefer not to be photographed. As I raise the camera, they melt away; even if I ask to photograph their stall, and they agree, they often walk away and leave the stall empty.

The Vietnamese traditionally live much more publicly than we do in the west, carrying out mundane activities - eating, sleeping, even washing and pissing, in the street. At the end of the day they are not cocooned and cloistered as we tend to be, but throng in cafes, parks and streets, laying down mats on the footpath to define their 'private' space. Confucian tradition emphasises community and family, and individualism is thought to be self-indulgent. They seem to lack the painfully engorged self- consciousness that we suffer from, so how can they comprehend our compulsive need for self-documentation? And why should we feel entitled to thrust self- consciousness upon them?

Vietnam: Begging, and the craft of Cat Cat girls

Cat Cat girls (Sapa)

Black Hmong girls, Sapa
Cat Cat girls are dressed in black 
Baskets and babies on their back 
Calling in gay cacophony
"Hello, Madame, buy from me!"

Dressed in devilish costume, the Black Hmong tribe girls haunt the streets of Sapa seeking new blood. Howls of delight and the pattering of feet meet the arrival of fresh tourists. After a day they know I will not buy and they leave me alone.

They are poor girls, from remote villages, and they (as in other Hmong tribes) learn to embroider as babies. They sell bags, hats, purses, scarves - only a few dollars each - that must have taken hours or days to make. They know they are worth more, but it’s a better option than begging, and they manage to seem both humorous and dignified.

Lee-fin, Sapa
The Red Dzao are different - shaved forehead and tall red turban, proud and exotic. They know they are begging, and it makes them angry, they feel demeaned. Lee-fin is thirty, has a gold tooth, and is beautiful like a wicked elf. She agrees to be photographed for 40,000 dong and we make an assignation. She tells us to recognise her by her jewellery, and indeed she has four thick ropes of silver around her neck. Like pirates these women carry their wealth with them - silver jewellery and their best embroidery.

The next morning we find Lee-fin by the square. She jumps up, eager for the deal, and her colleagues jump up too - 'I friend of Lee-fin! You photo me!' It seems to them such an easy way to make money, but no, we want only Lee-fin. As she faces the camera she becomes awkward, finds it hard to smile, wipes her mouth - is she worried it is dirty? Three shots and we hand her 40,000 dong. 'No! 50 thousand!' she demands. No, Lee-fin, this is what we agreed. She turns her back, haughtily - we are of no further use.

Begging (and other monetary matters)

Of course there is begging - as there always is wherever a disparity in wealth is evident. In poorer communities (such as on the Mekong Delta) it seems less visible, but in both cities and towns it takes various forms. I prefer to donate to charities than street beggars, and never haggle too hard at markets, but there is not always a simple formula.

We are upstairs at Dalat market eating lunch and an old woman approaches. I fumble in my purse and offer a note. I am not quite used to the currency yet, and she laughs in my face when she sees the note, it is an insult - 500 dong (2.5 cents). True, it is almost worthless, but surely better than nothing?

A man wanders Sa Dec market holding out his cap. He too is old - what history he would have seen! We give him 10,000 dong to take a photograph. Later we are told that the Mekong Delta brick kiln workers earn 10,000 dong an hour. Mostly we just take photographs and do not offer money - advised by our guide to offer smiles and thanks, it seems demeaning to offer ‘tips’ for everything, emphasising our privilege, when what we want to do is show respect for them and their home.

In the mountains, the tribal women pursue tourists like a flock of chattering predators, pressing handicrafts onto us, some of them very charming, and insist that we buy. The prices are so low - it is more glorified begging than a dignified living.

In some situations tips are expected - but how much? Through our journey we offer tips ranging from 500,000 dong ($25, for our Mekong Delta guide) to 10,000 (50 cents) for taking photo, carrying bags, other small assistances, but are never sure if we have it right. After a meal at an ‘Ancient house’ on the Mekong Delta we offer the old couple 100,000 dong to purchase a calendar from their wall. It’s a strange request, but they seem happy. And after a few days stay at a hotel we leave the same amount as a tip for services such as booking tickets and calling cabs. So we are later surprised at a demand from a tout for a 100,000 dong tip for one minute of assistance onto a train. Resentfully, we end up paying 60,000.

On the same trip one of the train guards, a sweet-natured young woman, asks for a dollar when we alight, and I think she is expecting a tip. I offer 50,000 dong ($2.50), my smallest note, and she shakes her head. ‘No, a dollar, for souvenir’. Oh! She wants an Aussie dollar coin! but I don’t have one, and apologise. She takes the proffered note reluctantly and with thanks then says - ‘Wait!’ She runs back onto the train, and a minute later emerges with a gold coin which she presses into my hand - it is an Aussie dollar!

Vietnam: Trains and Traffic

Train (Nha Trang-Saigon)

View from train,  N. Vietnam
The same song plays over and over on Rail-TV: the singers, tune and lyrics are all different, but still it's the same song. It features tears and smiles and heartbreak. It stars young and shiny girls and boys with tight jeans and glossy black hair. They mime and emote amongst props of flowers and hearts, dead trees and autumn leaves, moonlight and star-shine. Their dancing technique makes high-school musicals look good.

Meanwhile the landscape slips by - rice fields and water buffalo, unfamiliar orchards and crops, stony hillsides and the occasional pagoda. But the locals, who make up 99% of the passengers aren't here to see the landscape. The fare for the eight hour trip from Nha Trang to Saigon is about $10 - they are here for the cheap travel from A to B.

Travelling as we tourists do - hours on the road or train or boat, only to leave again for the next place a day or two later; moving in endless circles; photographing, writing, planning as if our lives depended on it - must seem absurd to the local people.

The cowboys of Lao Cai (Hanoi-Lao Cai)

Train track, Hanoi
The first one we meet in Hanoi, as we board the Lao Cai train. 'Let me help you': neatly dressed and officious, he must work for the railway. We have already walked 3/4 the length of the platform carrying our bags and have almost reached our carriage; still he takes my bag, inspects our ticket, and marches forthrightly to the carriage and into our compartment, where he shows our berths and demonstrates the light switches. Then holds out his hand for a 100,000 dong 'tip'. We laugh - that's five times what we paid the taxi driver to bring us here! - but he is serious and insistent. 20,000, 40,000 finally 60,000 and he leaves. Clearly he does not work for the railway.

At almost 6am we disembark, bleary- eyed and determined that no-one will touch our bags. A cluster of neatly- dressed smooth-talking young men surround us. 'Let me help you. Where do you want to go?' Directed to the local bus, we ask the fare - '300,000 dong. Per person.' I am dozily handing over the notes when reality hits - 'No!' I yelp, snatching back the money, 'that's too much!' We threaten to take another bus instead, and the fare is quickly negotiated down to only 250% of the real fare.

Returning by bus from Bac Ha to Lao Cai a few days later we pay only a 20% premium - a bargain - but it's a slow trip with a flat tyre on the way, and numerous freight pickups and drop-offs. Then Lao Cai to Sapa - half an hour wait, 33% markup, another flat tyre. Finally reaching Sapa around two hours behind schedule, the driver drops us on the outskirts, off the map, so we need another cowboy in a minibus to charge us the same fare for the 2km into town. Seems that they think we belong on tourist buses; maybe they're right.

Back at Lao Cai station for the return to Hanoi I try to find where to check in our travel vouchers. A confident and neatly dressed young man takes them from me and says he will get our ticket. He does so and leads us to the train (we hold tightly onto our bags). It's a grotty compartment in the wrong carriage. Actually it's also the wrong train. We grab back our vouchers and ask what's going on - his English is not so good now. An argument ensues after which we are finally handed a new ticket
- right train this time, still the wrong compartment, but it is for a 'deluxe' tourist carriage so we settle down to wait. Another young man approaches, 'I sell you VIP upgrade?' No way Hosé!!

Playing in the traffic

On the street, Hanoi
It is warm and humid, and gently drizzling, and the constant streams of hooting scooters, taxis and cars, and jingling bicycles, are increasing to dense shoals, skilfully slipping and weaving around each other, so nonchalant. Here there is a cyclo with family of tourists braving the din. Here a skinny woman laden with heavy baskets makes her way on foot to her street corner to spread her wares. Here a moped, the teenage driver is texting on his mobile as his girl hangs on. and another bike with a family of two parents and three vari-sized children squashed between.

It seems impossible that any pedestrian could cross through this whirling mass, but look closer - two young girls on their way home from school saunter across the road, chatting and laughing they join two even smaller boys who play in the gutter. The chaos seems terrifying to we whose life is dedicated to rationality and order, but those children playing in the traffic are accustomed to and comfortable with the apparent disarray, and at a very young age have learned the skills to survive it.

Vietnam: Blind - Caged - Wired

Who knows why I never got around to posting about our Vietnam trip, back in October 2010? A friend is currently travelling there and has inspired me to finally publish these musings ...
You can see the photos from the trip here.

 Blind Girl  (Saigon)

Blind girl, Saigon
At the Institute for the Blind, a blind albino girl leads me through a maze of corridors to a cool, high-ceilinged room; translucent partitions separate high, hard beds. I lie, face-down, feeling relief from the frantic activity of the street below. The traffic is barely a hum as her soft, deft fingers press and caress.

We are silent, those partaking in this hour of therapy, but the blind girls call to each other like birds - cooing, chirruping and chuckling. It doesn't sound like language, more like complicated music, with high and low notes, grunts and hums. I wonder what they are speaking about - do they laugh at us plump white ladies? No - they are teenagers, being as teenagers everywhere, sharing romantic intrigue in their charming, cloistered world.

 Caged  (Dalat)

Skinned, Sa Dec, Mekong Delta

At  Dalat  Market one  can  buy  almost any kind of fresh food - fruit, vegetables, seafood and meat, including all  extremities and entrails. (In Sa Dec a fishmonger is amused when we recoil from the live frogs that she is selling - already skinned.)
The freshest food of all is alive: fish, crabs, lobsters, eels, toads, chickens and ducks. The birds, in cages made of upturned baskets, squirm and squawk and look around, blinking and bewildered.

The stall proprietor, business-like, pulls out a pair of ducks and ties their legs together. Plopped onto the scale they lie compliant - why do they not struggle to escape? Seemingly resigned to their fate, they are snatched up and stuffed into a bag, and hooked onto motorbike handlebars. They still stare around, blinking, as they are hurried home - for chopping block and cooking pot? or to be reprieved as egg layers? I know no more than they know themselves.

In Saigon we visit a pagoda where a cage full of wild birds is strapped to a scooter. The driver indicates by sign that we can purchase and release a bird - for improved Karma? and what of the Karma of those who trapped and imprisoned the birds?

On the road from Dalat to Nha Trang there is a cafe with a chained monkey and many caged birds. The birds hop about, disconsolate, picturesque, silhouetted against the river. Children run wild, playing on the riverbank and in the shallows. In western culture we somehow deplore the caging of birds while caging our children ... my husband says, "we are all caged".


Wires, Saigon
Arriving in Saigon or Hanoi (particularly the former), one of the first things to be noticed is the incredible profusion of electrical cabling that swoops and tangles its way along streets, around trees and poles, and hanging like parasitic bundles of snakes from the walls. It's a miracle that it all works, and that those responsible are not regularly electrocuted - or perhaps they are!

Electricity is everywhere, and so is television - the meanest fisherman's shack is topped by a towering aerial. Some of the poorest people in the world now have access to global communication, which unfortunately seems to translate to force-feeding an endless flow of soft-drink advertisements and propaganda pieces promoting the new, consumption-driven Vietnam.

Perhaps the most empowering technology of all is the mobile phone - it is now hard to imagine a Vietnam that functioned without - as everyone from school child to aged crone has at least one, and often two (one for the family, one for the girlfriend!) During our constant travel, calls buzz to and fro to assist our progress. The driver of the bus to Halong Bay passes me his phone - it's a call from our travel agent in Saigon, about 1200 km away, informing us of the weather outlook for Halong Bay. Out on the bay, many kilometres out into the forest of amazing, ancient karst formations, the phone of the boat's tour guide jangles - it's for me, from our hotel in Hanoi, asking about the train tickets they are booking for us.

When we arrive back at the hotel, the manager is beckons me over to a computer in the lobby - he shows me that he is buying clothes online. 'Why?' I want to ask, 'Hanoi has the cheapest clothes in the world!' But I already know the answer: 'Because I can'.