There is a charming little town in the middle of Vietnam that entrances all those who visit it. The people are charming, the inexpensive food exquisite, and the scenery enchanting. You relax and savor it all, while magical little tailors create an entirely new wardrobe for you and your family for next to nothing. Well, not exactly. Hoi An is a nice place, but I found the food unexceptional and a little pricey, the scenery mundane, and the legions of tailors less than magical. One thing did appear to be true though; the people really were charming. Warm smiles followed us everywhere we went.
As we were not enchanted by the food and decided not to spend days with the tailors, we had a lot of time on our hands in Hoi An. The kids used their free time to focus on schoolwork and spend a little time on the Internet catching up with friends. Anne used the time to finally catch and recover from the cold that she had been chasing, and I used it to get a little time to indulge in taking non-family photographs. I usually mix in a few pictures of scenery or people but most of my effort with the camera is to take pictures of the kids and document our trip. In Hoi An I tried to think like a photographer rather than a family historian. I rented a motorbike and went out during the early mornings to try and catch a little of everyday life and the happy people who make Hoi An a special place.
Hoi An is a small town of about 10,000 surrounded by rice fields, a river, and the ocean. I decided we would have plenty of time at the ocean, so I decided to spend my time around the rice paddies and the river. The first day I rode out of town through the rice fields. I didn’t get very far before I stopped to capture some people on motorbikes driving across the horizon. I got my camera out and snapped a couple pictures. All of a sudden an old man got off his bike and started walking towards me. I assumed he was going to ask for a small fee from me for taking his picture. But as he got closer he yelled something at me and made the Asian sign for come this way, flapping his hand in a limpwristed manner. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I followed him a hundred meters up the road. He then turned down one of the paths that goes along the top of the rice fields. He was on an old bike, I on a rented motorbike. I trusted that the muddy ground would hold and headed down the path with him. We rode for about 200 meters when he stopped at a sign and pointed. The sign was alerting us to a tomb placed out in the rice field. This is nothing strange in Vietnam where generations are buried in the rice fields. For the Vietnamese it is just part of the circle of life. What was different was the fact that this was a tomb placed in the middle of a rice field for a Japanese trader who worked in Hoi An in the 17th century. That sounded pretty cool.
At this point we got off our bikes and made the walk down a concrete path through the mud to the tomb. The tomb was actually built in 1923 by the Japanese people of Indochine. The trader apparently returned to Japan when his country decided they would close the doors to the outside world and begin 200 years of isolation. The tomb wasn’t much. The old man had stashed some incense sticks behind the placard above the tomb. He pulled some out, lit them, and asked me to pray with him. I courteously bowed with him as he clapped and placed the incense into a cup. At this point he asked me to place some money down with the incense. Unfortunately I didn’t have any of the fake money I had seen burned all around Hanoi so I dropped about 5000 dong (about 30 cents) and returned to my camera. After I unsuccessfully attempted to photograph a red dragonfly in flight, we walked back to our bikes. It was then the old man asked me to pay him for his work as a tour guide. I pointed to the altar and told him he could have the 5000, knowing full well he had already pocketed the cash when he thought I wasn’t looking. He smiled and we parted. It was a good start to jumping off the beaten track and looking for interesting things to photograph.
I found a few more interesting photo spots. I took pictures of rice paddies, of trucks with completely exposed engines, but nothing as amazing as I had hoped. The second day I headed to the market and the river. I found it very difficult to try and juggle the camera and the motorbike, but when I could find a place to park it, I jumped off and grabbed a few shots of the market and the Japanese covered bridge.
For my final photo shoot I wanted to capture some candid shots of high school girls riding their bicycles home from school. I realize this is a sentence I would never use at home. I would likely be turned in as a stalker, a pedophile, or a creep, but this was different. The girls in Hoi An and other parts of the old Southern Vietnam wear long flowing white ao dais, the traditional dresses of Vietnam, which go to their wrists and ankles and come complete with knee length tails. When they come out en masse and head for home, they brighten the road with the white color of their uniforms and their infectious smiles. Unfortunately the light was gone before the girls let out, so I tried to use the low light as an opportunity to get some motion blurred photos. In the end there weren’t any great photos, but a couple had the effect I was after.
After a couple of days Anne was feeling better and the kids started showing early signs of being stir crazy, so we decided to leave Hoi An. It was time for me to turn in my temporary press pass and return to the role of family photographer, a job rich in its own rewards. Though I might never get the perfect shot and my subjects might complain from time to time, their smiles are the most precious to me and come without a pricetag.