Saigon Wandering

I’ve been in Vietnam since the first day of April, but the demands of reality have meant it is not until yesterday that I finally got the chance to get out with my camera. It was a long time coming, but quite worthwhile.

I took a walk down to the pedestrian bridge that crosses the river that runs by my apartment, and found myself in a small community of working class people living homes connected by a crisscross of narrow alleyways (sound familiar?) – seems a have an inbuilt radar for these kinda places!

The first character I came across was this guy. We couldn’t communicate, but smiles are universal…


I wasn’t quick enough to get him before he did the obligatory Asian pose – the peace sign (for those that know me, they know it’s one of the things that frustrates me most in Asia). I’ve come to accept it now, as I suppose it still shows something of the local culture – ie. what you are required to do if someone takes a photo of you.

The thing that was really cool about the guy was that his teeth had half missing along the top and half missing along the bottom, so that when he closed his mouth, they interlocked perfectly.

One way in which Vietnam differs quite a bit from China is the colours. In china, buildings in communities like this are generally drab grey cement structures, with the occasional faded pastel tiles caked with a build up of dust and oil from kitchen vents. In Vietnam, people appear to take more pride in their homes, painting them with soft but bright colours and keeping them in relatively good condition (or perhaps it’s just that there isn’t the intense smog that builds up a thick film on surfaces in China).

I was wandering down an alley when I spotted this girl further down…

Girl 1

I didn’t think the resulting image was anything to email home about but I did really like the fact that the colours of the girl’s clothes matched the buildings, and the stripes on her top and pants mirrored the lines created by the shutters on the doors and windows. Even the rubbish bag left for collection complied with the overall colour scheme.

I came across some even more striking lines when I walked along the river and spotted this guy chillin’ just inside the door of his home…

Eye of the Tiger

Actually I’m not sure if I should say “he” or “she”, but for some reason if a cat has a ginger coat it’s more likely to be male, so I’ll stick with that. Then again, in Vietnam if it were a male it’d more likely be playing chess or drinking with its friends in a cafe at this time of the day, rather than resting after working hard all morning (honestly Vietnamese women seem to work ten times as hard as Viet men).

One thing that is frustrating here in Vietnam is my inability to communicate. I came to take speaking the local language for granted in China, but here I’m back to square one. At one stage I was able to have a brief interaction with the locals when I passed a group of people sitting outside a small noodle shop. They asked me “Where are you going” (Đi đâu?) and I managed to understand and reply “I don’t know” (Không biểt). That was the extent of my conversation, but it felt good that I could use my extremely limited Vietnamese to make them laugh. Give me a year here and things will be very different…

I rounded a corner and ran into a group of women who took one look at me and pointed to a doorway. I didn’t know what they wanted but I walked past them and took a look. Inside was who I assume is the son of one of the women looking quite downcast, lingering tears on his face. I saw the boy, the walls of the small room (more like a wardrobe than a dwelling) and the light, and knew it would be one of my favourite captures of the day.

Chubby Boy

The women started talking into the “wardrobe” and suddenly two other faces appeared from inside. The boy’s brother and sister or cousins or friends (like I said, I can’t wait to be able to communicate!) joined him and whatever the chubby boy had been crying about was instantly forgotten as they clambered to get in the next shot.

Kids 2

I left happy that my presence had cheered a kid up. One thing that always feels good is the way the passing through of a strange foreign dude breaks up what might otherwise be a fairly monotonous day. I enjoy hearing people talking with each other after I’ve passed by, no doubt wondering what this weird westerner is doing in their alleyway and what on earth he sees as picture-worthy in their simple little community. I look forward to some more meaningful interactions once I’ve learnt a bit (ie. a lot) more of the language.

I continued wandering and was on my way back home when I walked past a home by the river and spotted one of the ladies that had been outside the room with the kids in it. She called to me and asked me to come to her door, and then pointed to a baby lying on the floor. I figured she wanted me to take a photo of it, so I did.

Baby 1

I called my wife and had her tell them I’d give them some prints. I took some more “textbook baby photo” photos so I had some they’d like for the prints, but I prefer this one with the father’s hand in the shot. I could see he really cared for his child.

I returned home feeling that I might just be able to enjoy living here, as my first month and a half had left me feeling a little deflated (maybe I’ll deal with that in another post). In any case, if I got a couple of photos I was satisfied with in this short two-hour wandering, a couple of years here may just yield some worthy shots. I’m thinking of getting more aggressive in searching out stories (it’s gonna be hard to stay away from the cliche agent orange victims, but there’s so much more to this country than that…). I’m also looking into broadening what I do and setting up a small studio in my study (if I could completely abandon teaching English to pay the bills, I’d be living the dream).

In any case, I’m at the threshold of many new things – new directions, new opportunities, new life! I look forward to sharing the story as it unfolds here, and thank you for joining me on the journey!