Some time ago, I finished my first photo book, called A Moment in Vietnam. I spent three years putting it together and I enjoyed nearly every part of that and I’m quite proud of it. However, my next book, whenever that comes, will be quite different. Through this project I learned a whole lot about photography, about putting collections together, and maintaining, researching and presenting photo projects. Let me elaborate.
Filling the gaps
After deciding to make a book, one of the first things I learned was that I needed to go out and take a bunch more photos. I think it’s a natural thought of a photographer that if one photo can tell a story, more photos together can tell more of a story. I had been doing that, but the turning point came when I stopped thinking about just adding pictures onto a pile, and thought about what the pictures would look like arranged out into a book, and saw that there were many gaps. Suddenly I had a lot of work to do!
I thought to myself, ‘What are the defining views of Vietnam, that I haven’t captured?’ and ended up with a great long list of things I needed to snare with my camera. I needed the food. I needed the wild traffic. I needed Ha Long Bay, and the little alleys of Hanoi, and the farmers in their fields, and the coffee, the dusty highways, the chill of the north and the torrential rain of the south. Each of these things became a mission, and when I was able to show multiple of these in one frame it was a great thing.
Filling those gaps was quite different from the way I’d started out in photography, which was just taking pictures of whatever I thought would look nice, or things I could make into a visual story. Instead, my missions were now quite specific. For example, I didn’t just want food – I wanted a working person’s meal and more upscale city-chic kind of offering next to it. I didn’t just want to capture new year’s traditions, I wanted to show young people following new year’s traditions. Trying to fulfill these missions was a fantastic challenge that really stretched my skills.
Ninh Bình is already quite close to my eventual destination, Hanoi, but I couldn’t really call my trip finished without a visit to the famous Hạ Long Bay. It’s what I’d been aiming at since the beginning of the journey and for that week the cruise was the only appointment that I had to make. Just the knowledge of my having to be in a particular place at a particular time in the near future gave me a hint of time-stress that I hadn’t felt in a while. I couldn’t think about the end, just yet.
Ninh Bình is a popular tourist spot as it’s only a couple hours south of Hanoi. The main attractions are not in the city itself, but to the east of it. It’s an area with many caves, temples and waterways. Contrary to most visitors, I arrived from the south, having spent about a week away from built-up areas. It was nice to be in a busy place again.
After my time in Phong Nha, I rejoined the Ho Chi Minh Highway West and continued north. The dramatic terrain also continued for a way, but eventually the land flattened out. In the next three days I passed up the throat of Vietnam, and into the brain stem.
It’s sometimes said among travellers in Vietnam that there isn’t much worth seeing between Huế and Hanoi. This is actually true if you’re following the coast. I met a fellow from Vinh, whom I asked about things to do there. He said there wasn’t anything, aside from Uncle Ho’s hometown nearby. That’s why he lived in Huế. However, on the western side of Vietnam you can find one of Vietnam’s greatest natural blessings: Phong Nha – Khe Bang national park, home of Vietnam’s biggest cave system, including Hang Son Doong – the biggest cave in the world.
Heading west out of Hue, I began the journey into the wilds. I was excited about my first stop – a small town called Khe Sanh. It may not ring a bell if you’re not Australian, but the song is one of our unofficial national anthems, along with Waltzing Matilda and the one about being from down under. We know more of its lyrics than of the real anthem, by which I mean about a verse and a half. Anyway, the legendary place awaited. I felt like I was on a pilgrimage.
Two of the best reasons to visit Huế are 1. to eat the food, and 2. to explore the old Nguyễn dynasty citadel. This is located around about the middle of the present-day city and walking distance from my hotel. It’s a big place and it has plenty to see, including remnants not only of the old kings, but also of the Vietnam war and the famous Tết offensive. The thing I most wanted to find, though, was the gate that appeared on Top Gear.
The road from Da Nang to Huế isn’t long but it’s well-known around the world. I knew it from the Top Gear special all those years ago, and I was looking forward to driving one of the greatest coastal roads – in the world.
The sun was beating down heavily once again and the road was literally melting beneath me – something I’d only seen before in Australia.
It was the 11th of April, and today my journey was very short – less than an hour away. I took a wander through Hội An’s old town once more before saying goodbye to the folks at Magnolia, getting lunch and dragging myself out of town. The weather was still very hot (40+ degrees, or more than 100 fahrenheit) but the roads were smooth and unbusy.
If you enter Vietnam through Ho Chi Minh city, you may be taken aback by all the concrete and highways, and think as I did – ‘where are all the rice fields and stuff?’ Well, there are plenty in Bình Định province. I’d spent most of the previous day driving past rice fields. I woke up in Quảng Ngãi on Saturday the 9th of April, and was still to pass quite a few fields before I arrived in Hội An.
Quảng Ngãi town wasn’t great for me – it seemed like part of the highway and not like the idyllic villages I’d been passing through. I wasn’t there long though.