A growing region with a strong identity and vibrant economy, Vietnam is on its way to becoming a superpower in Asia. Here’s my take on a nation that has healed itself after a gruesome war and reclaimed its power, hiding in plain sight
First Time Around
I first visited Vietnam when the 2018 Fifa World Cup was underway in Russia. It was weeklong trip with my friend Siddharth who was visiting me in China where I was a photo editor. At the time, I was completely fanatic about photography and bought at least 20 rolls of film for such a short trip.
It was partially the thrill of being able to shoot and process 35mm photographic film in Beijing and my habit of overshooting that ensured I kept plenty of film. I had learnt photography in a digital era where one didn’t have to factor in the cost of shooting each picture as they would while shooting film. Each roll of film, depending on the type, brand and price range had a measurable cost of purchase, development and scanning. Each photo was to be shot thoughtfully, technically and sparingly.
Landing in Hanoi took me by surprise, and there was a lot going on in terms of economic development and a strong and uniquely local culture. The streets were vibrant and bustling with activity; a photographer’s paradise. Most people I came across were kind, curious and often amused to come across two photographers prancing around the streets midday.
We were everywhere, and constantly interacting with people and photographing them. On one morning we walked past a local watering hole where two Vietnamese men were pounding whiskeys at 7am in the morning. The curiosity was mutual, and we found ourselves with two glasses of strong local whiskey at the invitation of our patrons. We weren’t in a position to refuse and just went with it on the pretext of being able to get some good photographs; we didn’t end up taking too many.
From my first trip to Vietnam in 2018, I remember walking a lot through every street and corner we could find in Hanoi; it was a deep dive into the city during the four days we were there. People had a lot of love to share, especially with foreigners who were willing to strike a conversation or share a meal.
After spending a few days in Hanoi and getting to know the city, we were ready to go to the countryside in search of a slow-paced, simpler life to document. We made our way to a place called Hoa Lu in the Ninh Binh province, staying at a unique place which was set in the middle of massive protruding cliffs and ponds. The location was breathtaking, frogs croaked all night and connectivity was minimal beyond a point.
Back for Seconds
It‘s been over 4 years since my last time in Vietnam and there’s still a lot going on. We’re in the middle of another FIFA world cup in Qatar and I’m back to explore central and southern Vietnam, this time on my own.
While Hanoi was more stately and historical, I was interested in the exploring the economic engines and sectors fueling the high intensity growth of Vietnam. Danang, although quaint in comparison to Saigon, has transformed into a powerful regional economy serving Vietnamese locals, expatriates and tourists. The influence and presence of Korean, Japanese and Chinese business interests is evident and has created an amalgamation of cultures co-existing in an exciting, windswept region by the ocean.
It’s important to note December is off-season in Danang and I found myself here for a week-long tryst with torrential rain. It might have been pouring 80% of the time I was there, but I tried my best to not let it faze me. I wanted to be out and about, photographing, filming and enjoying the natural beauty in and around Danang.
I was watching a documentary on Vietnam by late celebrity chef and journalist Anthony Bourdain and he often spoke about a rhythm and symphony on the streets, seen keenly in the constant and syncopated flow of pedestrian and vehicle traffic in the country. Stepping out on the street, one can experience this unmistakable theatre almost immediately.
There are a lot of short day trips and natural landforms to experience near Danang. It’s a place where one can access mountains, caves, islands and sea quite easily. It is also south of the historical city of Hue which is one of the oldest towns in Vietnam.
I took a day trip from Danang to My Son sanctuary, a network of temple complexes located inside a rainforest towards the south-west of Danang. My son, designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1999, was constructed by the Cham people of the indochinese Champa kingdom that ruled Vietnam from the 2nd to 17th century.
It was completely rained out on the day I visited, which made the site even more lush, with fewer tourists and traffic. This made it extremely difficult to stay dry but it brought sense of calm at the site that made it memorable.
Walking around the sanctuary, I felt enthralled in a way I hadn’t felt before. It was a surreal feeling; enchanting sounds from the rainforest and experiencing this architectural marvel tucked away inside a natural sanctuary. Just imagining that it was built over 1000 years ago gave me chills and challenged my sense and perspective of time. At that moment, I felt not just like another person in the 21st century, but truly a member of a larger civilization spanning centuries.
It is powerful to think that each one of us have the ability to define what our civilization looks like today, and how it may be perceived future by incoming generations. Although each day we may be caught up in the routine tasks, there is a lot of room for us to innovate and push the envelop of what humans can build and accomplish. Each task or vocation, if it can push human endeavor ahead in a way that may have not been done before, can add to the collective consciousness that either evaporates with us or moves onto the next century.
Once I had seen all the sites and rested for a bit under a tent, I realised that there was no way to leave the sanctuary and back to the city if one wasn’t with a tour group. Taxi and motorbike drivers in the area were unresponsive and there was no idle vehicle that could take me onward to Hoi An. I was too mesmerized by what I’d just seen to care or worry about how I was going further, and started walking towards the direction of Hoi An, 28kms away. I hoped to hitchhike my way. After finding no takers, I continued to walk for a mile or so when an enterprising restaurant owner saw a budding business opportunity in me.
He offered me a ride on his scooter for $20 to Hoi An. This was the fare for a private car but we both knew I had no other option, so I relented. I handed him a 20 euro bill that I was hoping to change into Vietnamese Dong, amused by how two blue notes from two countries could mean very different things in the world economy.
He smiled and called out to his son, who had a task ahead of him; driving me to Hoi An in the pouring rain and riding back home alone. I didn’t mean to interrupt the kid’s mobile gaming session but his father ran the show here. They handed me a helmet and poncho, and off we were into the rain. It was not the first time in my life that I got smacked in the face by the raindrops pouring in my direction; I could barely look up to film videos and this kid was riding away like it was no big deal.
Riding into Hoi An, an ancient trading port from the 15th century, felt like coming back to the thick of civilization. The town had a cozy charm to it, the warm lights of paper lamps flickering on the river and the fragrance of grilled food around the streets made it a great place to stroll and explore. The town was full of surprises and tourists, as expected, but peace and quiet were never too far away with a myriad of back alleys and corners.
Visiting Hoi An for a day felt sufficient and I decided to take a day trip to the Marble Mountains near Danang the next day. Whenever I travel to document a place, I try to cover a combination of historical places, archeological sites, economic centers and natural reserves in the country during a trip. A trip to the marble mountains, a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located in a town south of Danang fit the bill perfectly.
The mountains are home to many pagodas and caves with a booming marble sculpture industry in the town where they are situated. One can see hundreds if not thousands of indoor and outdoor sculptures made of limestone, marble and gem stones. These are intricately built by hand and machinery in nearby factories catering to an international clientele.
As expected, it poured that day as well. Most tourists were ready to leave as they were drenched completely as I was entering. I bought a large umbrella and made my way in and around the caves to stay relatively dry while being able to take photographs and make videos. The caves had statues of Buddha inside and there was an eerie silence inside the caves, which had enormous ceilings with gapes that let rain and light through.
I was mesmerized by the interior of the cave, and my neck hurt from looking up constantly to admire its beauty. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace just being there
I recognize my privilege being able to travel and document places so frequently, and feel a very strong sense of responsibility to bring the essence of these experiences to people who may or may not have the same opportunity. It’s not so much about where one goes, what they do or how they travel but more importantly its the spirit of adventure within us that we must nurture and renew within ourselves each day.
I hadn’t initially planned to visit Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, but a trip to the largest city in the country was a must to get a more complete picture of Vietnam. It was also one of the cities in siege during the Vietnam War with the United States. I wanted to get a better sense of the history relating to the conflict and understand how the country recovered so quickly after an all consuming war that took millions of lives.
To get a better sense of the war history, I visited the war remnants museum located in the city. Frequented by a lot of tourists, it was both difficult and fascinating to go through the exhibits. Entering the compound, one can see US Army equipment left behind during the war; Chinook helicopters, tanks, attack planes, boats and missile launchers are all parked in front of the museum to the cheer and amusement of visitors.
It was great way to window-dress the grim documentation of the bloody war inside. Going through the exhibits showing torture devices, casualties and the gruesome treatment of Vietnamese prisoners by US army personnel, I felt angry and can barely imagine how a Vietnamese person going through this showcase would feel. I also found myself fascinated by the military equipment and contemplating how we’ve culturally glorified fire-power and created this sense of pride around how wars are fought and won, often downplaying the human cost of making territorial gains and creating new markets for the defense industry.
The ongoing war in Russia is a good example of how countries are ever equipped for conflict and there’s not much that international organisations can do if a country decides to wage war on a country besides crippling them with economic sanctions; not every country has the same protection through treaties and alliances when it comes to defending their territory.
It seems like we haven’t learnt from our past; we still seem to have a budding appetite for arming conflicts and militarizing our police forces, peacekeeping institutions and governmental bodies. Defense budgets are increasing every year on the pretext of maintaining peace and we may not ever know a world without war and conflict
On a lighter note, Ho Chi Minh is probably the most exciting and livable cities that I have been to. It is similar to what I imagine Bangkok was a few decades ago when it was coming up. The city has a lot to offer and one truly feels the moving pulse of the city. It was a welcome change from the constant rain in Danang and I felt very comfortable immediately.
I was especially enthused to see a vibrant city where there’s a growing influx of expatriates, business travellers and tourists. Saigon is a microcosm of Vietnam’s growth, revealing how wealth is being built in the country and how economic development is taking a hold of its major cities.
It is truly an exciting time to be in Vietnam, and one can see strong cultural and industrial influences from Japan, Korea and China. The city feels like a playground for companies willing to fund new ideas, experiment and find a growing market for their goods and services. With all the beautiful people I’ve met and the exhilarating experiences I’ve had during my two trips to Vietnam, I can definitely see myself coming back to live here someday.