Vietnam

Terraced rice fields are like a stairway to heaven.
It’s the gentle struggle of men to tame the water bestowed by the sky.
It’s a hierarchy of elegant mirrors scattered across the mountains and the hills.
It’s an artwork, it’s rhythm, it’s an ordered creativity.

I guess when I planned my trip to Vietnam rice terraces where in my mind already, pushing me towards that decision, silently but firmly. Probably because it’s one of the images from Asia I have always been looking at with a mix of curiosity and fascination, or because, as a photographer, I’ve always found them challenging, iconic, full of old meanings and stories. In some way they summoned me, like tempting sirens promising treasures and pleasures (which in my case translates into nice photos and enriching human experiences).
I wasn’t exactly chasing a mirage though. Behind that image of coloured geometries and smiling harvests there were many expectations about the rural and ethnic soul of that country, but also about the multi layered people, drenched in a long history and in a pot of external influences.

My goal was the rural North, with a shorter visit to Hue (the old capital), in the middle of the country. But before, a short, relaxing few days stop over in Laos.
The first contact with Hanoi has been like a punch in the guts, I got there at night and my room was in the Old Quarter.

…First mistake.
The Old Quarter in Hanoi has become a colony of noisy backpackers partying on the streets. Definitely not my place, I moved aside that area the next day.
My Vietnamese friends warned me about Hanoi before I got there. The city is chaotic, pickpockets are in ambush and locals can be rough and pushy. I must admit at the beginning I have not felt comfortable there: I have not taken photos, I have just been walking around, but in general I am not fond of big cities and Hanoi is no exception. After few days, though, I opened my eyes to the hidden charm of the capital. It does have a charm.
In general the stop in Hanoi has been a preparation for the rest of the trip, with some basic technical shopping and chill out.

…Second mistake and advice to fellow travellers.
Do not expect to buy branded clothes or shoes there, even though big companies like Teva and North Face have their factories in Vietnam, all you can find on the streets and in the shops are the so-called “North Fakes”. Don’t waste your time searching.

My sensation was that the heart of Hanoi is in its street food. Don’t be scared, dare taking your seat at one of the many small street restaurants. Even though they seem meant for local people only, when you sit down, someone will come over to explain you how to handle the hot pot or the barbecue you find on the table. Most of the times they will do it in a harsh way because manners are not really paramount in the North (I think I’ve never heard anyone saying “không có gì” = “you’re welcome” during my whole stay in Hanoi and in the North in general, doesn’t matter how hard I tried to use the local language), but try to follow their instructions, the food is amazing.

I always try to stay away from main touristic destinations and I was chasing my goal: rice terraced paddies. Sapa (in the North) was the easiest choice, until I found a photo taken in a small province off the main touristic path: Mu Cang Chai, known as home of the most eye-catching terraced fields in Vietnam.
Decision taken, my Vietnamese friend and I made our way to the rural North. 4 hrs train + 5 hrs stop by night in Yen Bay + 5 hrs bus ride. When you get there you are tired, but the place fits the expectations, no tourists, quiet atmosphere and H’Mong people looking at me (tall and bearded) with curious and wary eyes. During the next days we explored the surrounding area by motorbike and I tried to take as many photos as possible. Then we decided to go further, someone told us about a H’Mong village called Xã Chế Tạo, hidden among the mountains, 35 km away, a community spread over a 20 km2 jungle.
I am glad my Vietnamese friend was with me, no one spoke English in Mu Cang Chai, only few spoke Vietnamese in Xã Chế Tạo. We ended up spending one night there, it rained a lot, we met beautiful and welcoming H’Mong farmers, we met rough and tricky H’Mong locals, we had to deal with an unpleasant Police man who gave us a really hard time and who determined our decision to leave at once from Xã Chế Tạo in the morning of the second day.
In spite of everything, Mu Cang Chai has been the highlight of my travel through Vietnam, something that, no matters what, I am happy I did.

Sometimes I wonder what I am really looking for during my travels: beauty or truth?
Beauty is rare, but truth is everywhere.
In this case beauty was hidden behind the truth. Truth is that:

  • Traditional rural cultures have to deal with a hard life;
  • Our concerns about manners and politeness belong to a first world privileged existence.

Those people reminded me of our grandfathers: essential and pragmatic, no waste allowed, not even waste of words.

If any of you is planning a trip to Mu Cang Chai, do it, regardless the bad part of my experience and just keep in mind my…

…Third mistake.
Those 35 kilometres are much more than one could expect. The last 5 km are not paved, just slippery stones and mud. After a while on that impossible road and after falling once, we decided to leave the motorbike there and make our way to the village on our feet, slower but stable. On the way back, under the rain, it was even worse. Locals can drive their overloaded motorbikes over that road very easily, but it wasn’t the same for me and this is part of the truth: to each his job.

…Fourth mistake and Side note
I guess skipping Sapa has not been a good choice. Some likeminded travellers I met told me they really enjoyed visiting it, not the main city maybe, but the surrounding area; will keep this in mind for next time.

Speaking of mud, August is the Monsoon season, which, in South-East Asia, means rainy season. I sought and found the terraced paddy fields, I don’t think I could have found better ones and I made it to photograph them, but I consider my goal only partially met. Actually the best season for visiting those regions is October, when the green of the fields gains a richer palette of warm colours and the harvest begins. During my trip I rarely availed of the support of the sun, never in the early mornings, rarely and in the shape of fleeing flashes late in the afternoons. The air was humid and hot and rainfalls were sudden and constant, with (among the others) subsequent condensation issues to my photographic equipment (Mr. Lowepro we should talk). I was prepared to this though and rainy days can be such a beautiful subject, so all in all it’s been a great travel photography experience despite the season.

I don’t like sticking to tight schedules or strict plans and also in this case things changed along the way. I travelled all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City, eventually (sorry but my brain prefers the other name, the old one: Saigon).
I spent some time in the central part of the country, in Hoi An mostly, a beautiful old city, famous for the traditional lanterns and for the old town. Hoi An also hosts a night market (I love night markets), but this one really felt fake and useless: every stand sold the same souvenirs as the previous and the next one. Pointless.
The three days I planned spending there expanded to a whole week because I decided to attend a scuba diving course. So happy I took that decision: my traveller’s horizon now is much wider.

Then I spent one day in Hue.

…Fifth mistake.
One day is not enough to visit the old capital and former centre of the empire. I went to the citadel, but after a while I had to head back to the hotel, with high temperature. I spent the afternoon in bed, taken care of by the ladies of the hotel where I was staying: one of the most heart warming experiences of my trip.
The central part of the country is much more westernized, with way less backpackers and more tourists “with money”. A getaway more than a traveling experience, with higher average prices also, of course.

…Sixth mistake: we spent one night in Da Nang and… no thanks. Long story short, the city is just kitsch: coloured lights everywhere, expensive hotels offering low quality, no atmosphere at all and even a dragon-shaped bridge spitting fire on Saturday evenings. But we had some good fish for dinner at least.

And then, as the end of the trip was approaching, Saigon came by (you can call it Ho Chi Minh if you prefer).
Saigon seems like a different world. Even though Hanoi is the political and cultural capital of Vietnam, Saigon took the lead of the economic life of the country.

One of the things about Vietnam that impressed me most (and that amused me a lot) are the elderly people gathering up on the streets very early in the morning to do some Tai Chi-ish work out, very often accompanied by disco music. Funny… and remarkable.

Saigon is a modern and huge city (10 million people). Motorbikes are everywhere (like in Hanoi), noisy, blunt and dangerous. Roads are their undisputed kingdom, a kingdom where rules are unwritten, barely comprehensible and universally accepted. But still I saw little to no accidents on those busy roads, maybe because locals drive very slowly, or because their driving style hides some effectiveness my eyes couldn’t see.
Futuristic architecture, trendy cafes, elegant restaurants, big malls, a smart and well read young generation, a dynamic and lively concept of the urban space: Saigon is projected towards the future of this country, or maybe it is the future of Vietnam itself.
I have unexpectedly enjoyed the few days I spent there.

The last destination I added to my trip was a two days tour of the Mekong Delta.
For the first time I joined a group tour arranged by an agency. Well, I really don’t belong to this way of traveling, for a quantity of reasons. For example I don’t feel free to take my time to enjoy the place slowly, to take photos, to mingle with locals. But I did not have many expectations, I have been recommended not to miss the Delta and I didn’t avail of much time, so I decided to go the easy way.
The highlights of the tour have been some really nice fellow travellers I spent a great time with, the challenging food I had the chance to try (water snake, rat and giant snails), the quick tour of the floating market and especially the short free time we had before dinner near the homestay in a village. We just walked around, with local people inviting us to join them for dinner, offering us rice wine and pork belly, smiling and just being nice, warm and welcoming. I really laughed my heart out when a very funny 3 or 4 years old girl ran towards us, on the road, screaming as if we were her father returning from the war field.

I got back to Saigon with a smile and with an even bigger curiosity about these strange and beautiful Vietnamese people. They can be rough, sweet and warm in so many ways.
What really raised many questions in my mind is the lack (in many cases) of curiosity towards the outer world (which in many cases means the neighbour) and of mind flexibility. Asking for directions, for example, could turn up being really frustrating at times: very often locals simply gave up trying to be of any help. I don’t think this was due to the barrier language; the answer did not change when the question came from my Vietnamese friend. I always tend to believe many minor habits are massively influenced by the historic culture of a country. And there are not many chances the troubled modern history of this country (read: communist regime and civil war/invasion) wouldn’t leave a mark, or maybe I’m wrong.

Still, Vietnam is a very productive and lively country.
The North showed me what Vietnam used to be; the Centre revealed what someone would like to see Vietnam turned into; the South portrayed instead a possible future in which tradition still has a place, but in a self-aware and progress oriented country.

Traveling is always a discovery, a chance to learn about/from the world and about/from our inner selves. In Vietnam, for example, I was diagnosed poverty by two different persons: seems like the line of money on my hand palm is too long, it reaches the conjunction between the ring finger and the middle finger. This means I cannot retain my money and that it will keep on flowing out through those two fingers.
The cure? I need to buy a middle finger ring for my left hand.
I am still searching, but I will find it. How would I spend my money in travels if I don’t have money, otherwise?
Pfff… go figure.

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