Photos of Sapa, Vietnam

Adding on to yesterday’s post about my “best of” gallery of Vietnam photos, here is a little bonus. For a while now, I have had my photos of Sapa, Vietnam sitting on my hard drive, ready for uploading and just waiting for the opportune moment. Well, today seems as opportune a moment as any. So, let me present you with my photos of Sapa, Vietnam.

Sapa is the mountainous region in the Northwest of Vietnam easily reached by an overnight train from Hanoi. Sapa town is the jumping off point for an area populated by colourful hill tribes in minute villages. The landscapes are lovely and the people are beautiful, especially if you have the chance to get to know them a little bit. I wish I could have stayed longer to develop better relationships with the people and see more of their lives.

Also, a longer stay would have allowed more opportunity to visit more remote villages where tourism had not yet had such an impact. Most place s I went, the initial reaction of everyone there to a foreign presence was to drag out all their crafts and hawk them relentlessly. I don’t begrudge them but it did get annoying at times. But when I got the chance to spend a couple hours with a few local Black Hmong girls at the Sapa market, we connected a lot more than if they had just been trying to sell me souvenirs.

The trip was full of other adventures including:

  • that overnight train ride where I got to practice my French with a family that shared my cabin
  • visiting the locals schools and playing with the kids
  • landing face first on a muddy road after a motorbike accident
  • desperately scrambling up muddy slopes to try to get out of a valley and make my train back to Hanoi
  • being force-fed rice whiskey at a local wedding and the resultant drunken bargaining with the locals and inevitable stumbling around muddy paths
  • playing pool with kids on the world’s most crooked billiard table
  • hitching a ride with german tourists in decommissioned Vietnamese military vehicles
  • market trips, weird lunches inside the houses of the locals, an ostrich, watching mists roll in and out in seconds, etc.

Have a look at the photos here.

Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam

“Best of” Vietnam Gallery

As I mentioned in this post, my trip to Vietnam deserves a bit more than a few of my images in my portfolio. So, to somewhat rectify Vietnam’s omission from my site, may I now present you with a small “Best of” gallery of some of my favourite images from Vietnam.

VIetnam is certainly one of the countries I intend to re-visit someday. Its people can be so pushy, but all the while, they are so friendly and welcoming. It makes for a strange mix, but an intriguing one. They seemed very open to inviting strangers into their lives. All this is in a country with a long and rich history that is very much alive today so you get a view of the country how it has been both in the past and the present.

Have a look here.

Photo of the Day – Hanoi Portrait

Hanoi was one of my favourite places for street photography, largely because everyone is always in the street. Many businesses that would normally carry out their day-to-day operations inside are frequently found occupying the sidewalks of the motorcycle-choked, labyrinthine streets of the old city. Shoemakers, carpenters, metal workers and other trades and craftspeople are on full display and with a little rudimentary Vietnamese and a friendly smile, you can find some great subjects for your shots.

One of my personal favourite shots from the time I spent there is the one below. Again, this is another one from my brand new portfolio site, this time from the people section. Click on the thumbnail to see the full size:

This guy just looked badass. He was hanging out on the corner, not getting up to much of anything – just checking out the scene and listening to Hanoi’s ever-present motorcycle-horn symphony.

As tough and mean as he looked, I couldn’t bear passing by him without at least trying to get his consent for a photo. I could have walked across the street, slapped a long lens on my camera and covertly snapped a candid, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be altogether pleased with the result. His appearance was so engaging, I felt I would lose some of that by putting a huge distance between us. Not to mention, I generally think it’s polite to ask when the opportunity’s available.

Armed with one of the few Vietnamese phrases I was capable of speaking, I approached him and the local words for “Can I take your photo?” managed to stumble out of my foreign mouth. The worst he could do was say no and I would have lost nothing except an opportunity for what would have been a somewhat unsatisfying candid shot.

But instead of saying no, he looked at me silently, nodded and then proceeded to take this pose while I got my shot. My Vietnamese was, by no means, good enough to tell him to “act natural” or “cross your arms and look tough.” I got a bit lucky with that, but, to a degree, you make your own luck and this shot wouldn’t have happened without performing the simple act of asking to take the photo.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always easy to overcome the intimidation factor, but you just have to keep telling yourself, “the worst they can do is say no.”

I’m hoping I can follow up this brief visit of my time in Vietnam with a slightly more lengthy stay there – I would like to gather up some of my favoured shots from there into a “best of” gallery on this site. It’s a fantastic, beautiful country that deserves a longer look than this little blog post here. Stay tuned.

Face, Meet Vietnamese Mud

This is the journal entry where my parents start to worry about me in earnest. They shouldn’t though – I didn’t break any bones and other than a minor bruise or two, some muddy clothes were the major results of my first (and hopefully last) motorbike accident. My driver wasn’t hurt either. And the bike wasn’t damaged as far as I know, so really, it was the mud that won the contest between riders and road.

By the end of my second day in Sapa, I had tired of the relentless barrage of hard sell tactics by the local women, particularly those of the Black Hmong tribe. Following you everywhere with endless supplies of useless souvenir garbage no one would want to buy if their arms weren’t twisted to the breaking point by these women. I acknowledge that some of the embroidery is fine work and the effort involved in creating it is phenomenal, but it has little practical value and ornamentally, it would be out of place in most wardrobes or interior design schemes.

The penetration of the tourist trail into the area has fostered this ubiquitous entrepreneurship. At the same time, it’s tourists who started paying people for each photo they took and thus another cottage industry was born. The result is that few people in the area are willing to have their photo taken without some exchange taking place first. Usually, they are interested in selling you one of their many handicrafts and afterwards, they will let you snap a shot of them. But other than that, finding a willing subject is ridiculously difficult. With my supply of purchased bracelets growing while my wallet shrank, I decided to try to get off the tourist trail a little bit and see if I might have better luck with a tribe who hadn’t had so much contact with the Western world and its rampant capitalism.

The plan was to hop on the back of a rented motorbike with my guide and spend about an hour meandering down the mountains into the valley where a lovely village full of warm and gracious people would greet us.

Plans started going awry when the clouds covering Sapa extended much further into the valley than we had expected. The mists had moistened the road and my guide was letting out frightened sounds that indicated clearly she wasn’t an experienced driver. You know that stereotype about bad female Asian drivers? Well, she was giving it credence as we weaved along the slippery street.

I optimistically continued on with the ride, but continued my firm grip on the back of the bike despite my freezing fingers. The cold of Sapa’s heights was also migrating downhill and with it, my spirits. I kept having visions of the bike slipping out from under us and my leg being trapped, crushed beneath.

Mercifully, we stopped briefly at a boarding school where kids from the local tribes come to learn Vietnamese. I played with the kids for a while who were more than happy to see their own images on the display of my camera. Yes, some of the young kids were the exception to the rule of prohibited photography.

Strength briefly renewed, We left the misty, run-down school and continued the downward road. But the fear returned when the paved road ended and we hit the mud that would lead us the rest of the way down. Deep, slippery ruts proved to be far too much for my guide to negotiate and so I often found myself hopping off the bike when the way became too difficult. The bike then got pushed down through the mud and we re-boarded the bike when the way seemed safe enough.

This made for some slow going. And the whole ride was terrifying. When we hit the dirt road, there was not a single moment where I was not on my guard, ready to have my body thrown down the steep cliff beside us (as ready as one can be for that prospect at least).

A kilometre or two of this sluggish, frightening journey, we nearly fell off the bike and only our panicked legs planted into the mud saved us from toppling into the brown, pasty road. I had been imploring my guide to put an end to the madness and have us walk the rest of the way and this scare finally seemed to get through to her – she was in over her head.

We parked the bike at a roadside stand and left it with an old tribal woman then started trudging through the slippery mud. Walking wasn’t much quicker. Each step sent us sprawling sideways on the verge of splaying and falling headfirst into a slide down the hill. Only having slid about 50 metres of the way from the bike, my guide had convinced herself she could manage the rest of the ride. I have no idea what gave her that impression, but somehow, she managed to convince me to give it another go.

Everything told me not to do it: Her nervous yelps every time the bike threatened to escape her clutches. The low visibility. The incredulous looks of passers by who seemed confused that we had defied gravity up to this point. But still, I hopped on and said I was ready to go.

We probably made it about 100 metres. We were slowly negotiating a turn and the ruts were not so deep that we had to walk. But before I could determine what the horrified yelping from the front of the bike meant, I was sprawled face first on to of the bike and my guide was beside it with one leg underneath. Shocked, I had no idea what I was doing there. In the middle of my internal assessment of whether or not I had been hurt, she starts barking at me to move from my position. I had no idea what was going on, I rolled to the side and she freed herself from her spot.

I stood, covered in mud and continued my self-diagnosis. I was standing, so that was a good sign. My arms and fingers seemed to work though my wrists hurt a little. A couple other small but insignificant pains. Nope. I was all right. My guide was standing and seemed okay. I asked and she was fine.

The fall wasn’t really that hard, so I didn’t suspect anything would be wrong with the bike, but I was finished with the thing. I was ready to turn around and start walking the 18 or so kilometres back to Sapa while trying to hitch a ride that would get me there in time to catch the bus to Lao Cai so I could make my overnight train.

I turned to look uphill and a convoy of Vietnam War-era military jeeps was heading down the mountain. This could only mean one thing. Tourists! I had never been so happy to see a tour group in my life. They stopped when they saw our overturned bike and before they had finished offering a ride, I was on board. My guide wanted to walk the rest of the way down after she had parked the bike at the side of the road, but I didn’t really care about anything but being on four wheels instead of two at that point.

This group of German tourists seemed pretty confused to have me in their midst, but I happily rode the rest of the way down with them hardly saying a word and inspecting my mud-covered clothes. Even these extra durable jeeps were having a tough time navigating the slippery roads, but I seemed to fatalistically accept each slide we took. If I was going to die today, the best I could hope for was not to suffer much. I exaggerate, of course, but any ride would have seemed peaceful after that bike.

We reached the town in the valley and the German tour guide started speaking to his charge while I stood there wondering what the rest of the day had in store for me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to spend the night in this village and try to find a way back the next day, catching another train, or if I was somehow going to find my way back to Sapa for dinnertime.

I just decided to pull out my camera and try to have some fun for an hour. Just on hour. I’ll explore the town a little and see what I can see. Just on hour, then I’ll figure out what to do with myself.

No sooner had I made this decision than my guide wandered down the path. Incomprehensibly fleet of foot was this little Vietnamese girl. She soon led me off to her cousin’s home where we ate lunch. She then sent me off for a while alone in the village where I soon discovered that the people here weren’t exceptionally more friendly than anywhere else in the valley. In fact, higher up, the people will be more friendly to you in the hopes of selling you something.

In Ban Ho, I was just invisible. Invisible of course until I asked to take a photo. At that point, I was waved off by every single person I encountered except for one happy farmer who was happily sawing some bamboo. It was again only the kids that wanted to have anything to do with me. Them and the dogs roaming the town. Kids and dogs – the only folks out there who seemed to understand that I’m actually a pretty good guy.

My favourite kids were the ones who invited me into their modest wood house for a game of pool. More to the point, we were just smacking a few billiard balls around. These youngsters (maybe around six to nine years old) had enough trouble seeing over the crooked, worn table let alone accurately aiming a pool cue. But they didn’t care. They were elated whenever I managed to hit a shot (pure luck on this ridiculously off-kilter table). We laughed and giggled with each other then they happily shook my hand when we parted. Their only English was ‘Hello’ and ‘Bye bye,’ but we got along famously.

Unfortunately, one of the nearby residents had to try to spoil the encounter by trying to get me to give him money for playing pool with the kids. I thought maybe it should have been the other way around – after all, I was playing babysitter for a good while there. I shook my head and wondered to where the spirit of sharing disappeared.

I know these people are impoverished, but I have been in far poorer places and there, generosity reigned. So many people in Ghana, for example, were ready to part with everything they had, even though they had next to nothing.

Until a dozen years ago, I’m not sure that the people in this valley were unhappy in their ways. They had not changed their lifestyle for hundreds of years, so perhaps they were content. But I think perhaps the outside world changed that. I’m not going to try to formulate a theory about what happened here to cultivate the area’s changed demands – I really don’t know the history well enough – but I’m almost certain that ten years ago, my experience here would have been entirely different. Perhaps it would have been less comfortable, but I’m almost certain it would have been more rewarding.

After meeting up with my guide again, she told me we would be able to get a ride back with the German tourists at 3:30. That left plenty of time to get the bike and head back to Sapa. But at 3:00, I was just about to make my first friends in the area (I had been playing with some kids and the adults seemed to be warming up to me) my guide came around the corner and suggested we start climbing the mountain. The German group had not yet returned and she was sure there wouldn’t be enough time to get back unless we started off now.

The next hour or so was a power trek up steep and slippery slopes. Lacking traction on my worn-out shoes and lacking breath in my unacclimatized lungs, I sweat my way up the mountain. My guide bounded up the hill with unexpected energy and repeatedly committed one of the cardinal sins of leading a trek – she let the last person get out of sight. Good thing I never twisted that bad ankle of mine or anything. Of course, along the way, with my camera packed up, I passed a plethora of gorgeous, photogenic people. But that’s just me deluding myself into thinking that they would have allowed me to photograph them.

Covered in sweat we reached the bike and renewed the hop on hop off dance that described the last few kilometers of our ride. We finally reached the paved road and since the mists had abated, the rest of the ride wasn’t quite as treacherous.

Back at the hotel, I did my best to stay warm until the bus was set to take a group of us to Lao Cai.

After all that, I would still happily return to the area. It’s a gorgeous place to be. If I’m lucky enough to return, I will most definitely come during the summer to avoid the cold and bad weather. I would also like to be able to stay for a longer period and not do it as part of a tour. If I stayed for a couple weeks and was able to meet more of the people, there would be much more of a tendency for them to know that I wasn’t there to buy their goods. So, the vendors would be more likely to leave me alone and those interested in having a making a connection would be the ones that approached.

I know this because of a French couple I met on my second day. They were a week into their 12-day stay and were just talking with everyone. They had quickly insinuated themselves into the community. And I managed to make a few friends too in my short time there. There was a group of four girls who were cute as could be and spoke good English. They were happy to talk for a couple hours and only once in a while reverted to their habit of asking, ‘You buy?’

So, Sapa, until next time. I hope maybe you can find a bit more of what you probably used to be in that time (unless you prefer it this way).

Highland Mirth in Sapa

10:30 pm

I haven’t been drunk in years. Check that, up until this afternoon, I hadn’t been drunk in years. It just doesn’t really agree with me. I don’t even normally touch the stuff. But today, that was not an option.

My guide, knowing I was a photographer, decided to take me to a wedding that was happening in the area. The morning saw us take a jeep out to the villages and then walk through some stunning countryside. Along the way, we were hounded at every turn by the girls and women of the local tribes who were hoping to sell their handicrafts to the area’s ever-multiplying tourists. Each of them was a sight to behold with all of their tribes’ traditional clothing wrapping them in a picturesque package. Just beautiful

Unfortunately, the area has been touristed enough that you’re only going to get a non-candid photo of them by paying them. At least that was my experience – I talked to a couple girls later who had no trouble whatsoever taking shots of the girls that had been following them the whole day. I might have been a bit unlucky I guess. I only got some willing participants after I bought a couple of small items off a woman here or there.

After walking for most of the morning through the mud and the terraced rice fields, we arrived at the wedding. Gathering only what I thought I might need for shooting the wedding, I headed off from the small house where I would eventually have lunch.

The wedding was being held at a nearby house whose front yard area had been covered in a tarp. Underneath, dozens of locals had gathered and were happily sharing celebratory meals. I was soon ushered to a table and offered some food. Rice was about the only thing I could eat, but the folks who had brought me in quickly changed their tune and decided to give me a drink.

Of course, I told them I don’t drink. It was like I had just punched the bride in the face. Shocked, the man holding my eventual glass insisted that it was bad luck for the couple to say something like ‘I don’t drink.’ Before I knew it, one of my hands was filled with a shot of rice whiskey and the glass was being driven towards my mouth. I figured I could probably stand to down one shot and I wouldn’t be too affected by it.

But no sooner than I had finished grimacing at the taste, my other hand was now holding another glass. ‘Two! Two!’ was the refrain being yelped at me by this pusher and I probably would have cursed the couple forever or gotten kicked out of the place if I hadn’t downed the second shot.

Now, keep in mind that even when I did drink, years ago, I was by no means a heavyweight. A lot of 12 year olds probably could have given me a run for my money or even put me under the table. Considering that I haven’t had a drink in years, I was sure that two shots would be plenty for me and I would feel the effects soon enough.

But of course, two was not the end of things for me. Some slight of hand had either refilled my glasses or they had been replaced with fresh drinks and I was once again being exhorted to down them both. At this point I figured I might as well roll with it as best I could.

I pleaded with the man foisting these drinks on me, ‘Please, promise me that these are the last two I will have to drink.’ I got his promise and thought that four would be somewhere within my upper limit. The nasty stuff was swallowed and stood back relieved that I was finished with the ordeal – I thought I would just have to prepare myself for the oncoming buzz.

‘Two more when you meet the groom!’

And with that I was guided to the groom. By this time, I’m already feeling more than buzzed. In fact, this stuff went straight to my head. So, I can’t even really remember what the groom looked like so much. He was wearing a light blue shirt and looked to be in his mid thirties from what I recall, but if I bump into him tomorrow, I’ll have no idea.

Continuing in the spirit if being a good sport, I threw back the groom’s shots. Immediately after each of them he stuffed small rice cakes into my mouth. They dulled the taste of the shot at least.

Now that they had had their fun getting the foreigner tanked, they lead me over to a chair where I started playing with some dog. I only remember this because I looked at my photos and I have a blurry shot of my hand petting some four-legged friend. In fact, I have a bunch of shots that document the experience for me. Apparently, I took a bunch of shots of the families and then wandered through the kitchen.

Someone then took me back to the house where I had left my bag and sat me in a chair where I continued taking photos, this time of someone’s relatively nondescript back yard. Soon, I was being approached by yet another woman selling her wares. We talked for a good long while and eventually, we agreed on a price for an item I can’t mention here because it will likely end up as a gift for someone.

But soon after making the purchase, she and I became best friends. She was obviously okay with me taking a bunch of photos of her. Fortunately, before I had started drinking, I had set up my camera so that even a drunk idiot could take a decent shot with it. Remarkably, some of my shots of this woman didn’t turn out too badly. My photos from inside the wedding, however, were an absolute mess. The light was far too low for me to try anything when sober, but with drunk and shaky hands, I ended up with a series of blurry nonsense.

After a nice lunch, I briefly visited some kids at a nearby farm then returned to collect my things. Upon sitting down and resting briefly, the home’s owner decided she wanted to get in on the action of getting folks pissed. She wouldn’t let any of us leave until we had all had a few more shots of rice whiskey. My guide and her friends were attempting to replace the drinks with water when she wasn’t looking, but she would have none of it. Nothing got past her and she wasn’t satisfied until I had finished off another three shots. That made for a total of nine in just over an hour for me.

Oddly enough, though I did indeed get more than buzzed, my head started to clear remarkably quickly. While walking along, I could actually feel lucidity returning to me with each step. I’m not sure why, but the booze seemed to be gone from my system a couple hours after the whole affair. Since it’s been so long, I don’t recall how long it’s supposed to take for my head to clear, but I do seem to recall waking up still tipsy once or twice. So I’m thinking my recovery time was pretty unusual for me.

Happily, that should translate to no hangover for me since I’m now feeling totally normal as I write this before going to bed.

I just hope there aren’t any more weddings in the area tomorrow.

9:00 am

What on earth am I doing in a two-star hotel? I wasn’t expecting this.

I’ve arrived in Sapa and I have some time in my lovely room before I’m to go off for some hiking in the area’s cloudy hills. But I wasn’t expecting to be staying the nicest hotel in some time for me. Go figure. I didn’t even really know if I would be doing a homestay or what. I mean, I have a fireplace. No wood, but there is a fireplace here.

And, happily enough, I have this cozy room all to myself. I’m the only one who has booked this particular tour, so I’m all by myself this whole time – just my guide to keep me company. I’m feeling a bit spoiled at this point.

The train ride here wasn’t too bad. I actually managed to sleep on what was, surprisingly, my first overnight train ride. I shared a cabin with a French family and had to try to practice a language I haven’t really studied in 13 years. My comprehension is great, but my speaking could use some work. But overall, we understood each other.

Now I’m just sitting here wondering if perhaps I’m going to be carried along through these chilly mountains in keeping with the spirit of what feels like some luxurious accommodation.

Halong Bay

I just spent most of the day wandering around the old quarter of Hanoi taking portraits of all the interesting faces around here. Most of the people seem to work right out in the street so you see everyone from carpenters to smiths to vendors to seamstresses all working out on the sidewalk. All the while the incessant river of honking scooters were whizzing past and doing their best to drown out all the noises of work.

Yesterday I played a game with a couple of Swedish girls to see how long we could last without hearing a horn blast. The record was eight seconds. Not so impressive.

These two were a part of the Halong Bay trip I took. Halong Bay is one of the star attractions in northern Vietnam with its hundreds of limestone islands jutting high above the blue waters of the bay. Grey cliffs tower over the junk boats that meander through the peaks while calm waters slowly erode the bases.

Two days one night on a nice junk out in the hundreds of islands made for a good time, but the weather could have been better. Though it wasn’t raining, the fog and haze made for what could optimistically only be described as ‘atmospheric’ photos.

A nice group of folks helped make the trip fun and a boat of far higher quality than my last nautical ride made for a better time on board. Last time I spent a night on a boat was in the Galapagos Islands on a small boat named the Yolita. I had a great time there thanks to some incredible sights, but the boat itself wasn’t exactly the lap of luxury. So, it was nice to have my expectations dramatically exceeded with this ride.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the caves we visited. Translated to English, apparently the name means ‘Surprising Cave.’ The huge limestone cavern was fantastic. I had never really been inside a cave like that before, so I just thought it was magical. I didn’t want to leave the multicoloured stalactites and stalagmites, but our tour guide rushed us through. We also took a trip to Titov Island where we hiked up to the top of the limestone peak for a panoramic view of the foggy bay.

The next day before the bulk of my shipmates disembarked to continue their trip on Cat Ba island, we sailed through a floating village and past the symbol of Halong Bay: The Two Cocks. These two small limestone islands supposedly look like a couple of roosters fighting each other. They looked like the sails of a boat to me, but to each his own.

My next stop is the hills around Sapa where I’ll be doing a few days of trekking around the hill tribes of the area.

Good Morning Vietnam

Yeah, I couldn’t resist the title even though it’s evening here.

I’m currently in Hanoi. Not staying at the Hilton here (I’ve heard it’s not so great). It’s a pretty intense city. A bit of a sensory overload and I know a thing or two about that. It’s all a bit surprising to me since most of the images I have of this country come from Platoon or Apocalypse Now. I half expect to see someone from the Sheen family around the next bend…

I’m staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and that’s all I’ve seen since arriving last night. It was raining today so I didn’t explore too much – just wandered around the area. All the French colonial buildings are so thin they look like a slight tremor would send them tumbling to the ground. And beneath all those buildings lay cramped streets jam packed with scooters. Scooters whose horns blare incessantly. I can’t really even fathom what this place would be like without all the traffic. As soon as I start trying to imagine it, a horn will ring in my ear from a couple feet away and jolt me back into reality.

All these scooters fight for space on the roads while on the sidewalks women in bamboo hats carry baskets of vegetables slung over a board on their shoulders. Internet cafes cast a glow across the streets onto ancient men fronting ancient shops full of anything you can imagine (often ancient looking junk). It’s like old and new met up and decided to get in a streetfight

The people have generally been really friendly and welcoming. A lot of that is from the hope of getting some tourist dollars, but I’ve met a bunch of people who seem to me happy just sharing a laugh with me and not trying to sell me a tour.

I’m still trying to figure out what to see while I’m here, but I know I’ll be staying in North Vietnam – just not enough time to go all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City. I might make it as far as Hoi An before turning back up to Hanoi. Halng Bay and Sapa are on the itinerary,but I’m not sure when or in what order I will be making those trips.

Tormorrow the weather is supposed to be better than today’s constant drizzle, so hopefully that will afford me the opportunity to do a bit more exploring.

Lastly, I know I haven’t mentioned anything about Singapore here, but I’ll get to it. Just like I did with this wee blog, I might cull some content from emails sent to friends and family – that should make the job a bit quicker. So, sorry if you end up reading something that sounds familiar.