Two, three or four men in a boat

The sun was just rising and it was the busiest beach I ever saw. I was about an hour’s drive south of Hoi An in Vietnam on an excursion with the photographer Etienne Bossot.

The activity was all about fishermen and their catch. Their boats were lying on the roadstead and the men used basket-shaped tiny boats to bring their catch ashore, where deals were swiftly made with the numerous buyers around. What seemed chaotic was in fact very well structured, rehearsed on thousands and thousands of similar mornings.

Slightly overwhelmed by all impressions and by the speed at which everything happened, I left my shoes somewhere in the middle of it all and tried to follow the action, or parts of it rather, in the water, on the shore, pointing the camera the camera to where the most interesting things seemed to happen.

It wasn’t easy. I never took so many bad photos in such a short period of time ever before, in spite of Etienne’s excellent advice and tips. I seemed always to be just a little too late, or too close, or too far away, or looking in the wrong direction.

And sometimes I forgot for a second that this was a photography excursion and just stood there in awe, admiring all these people who didn’t let themselves be disturbed in the slightest by someone running around with a camera. They had work to do and just got on with it.

“Would you like to stay a little longer or should we go for some breakfast?”, Etienne asked. Stay longer, obviously! In the end we had to move on of course, to breakfast, to visit the market and to stroll through the fishing village but hang on, I need my shoes!

I was relieved to see that they were still exactly where I had left them.

Halong Bay mist

Everything on the ship was wet, but it wasn’t raining, it was just so incredibly misty. Together with some 20 people I had just boarded the Dragon’s Pearl junk for an overnight cruise in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

During the previous days I had studied the weather forecast with great interest, hoping for the overcast days to end just in time for my trip. And the forecast did indeed show that the sun would pierce the clouds just around my boarding time. But the otherwise rather pessimistic site that I regularly consult (yr.no, I like it just because it is slightly pessimistic and it’s much nicer to get a positive surprise than to be disappointed) proved to be wrong this time. No sun. Just thick clouds.

But as soon as we had left the busy harbour my disappointment turned into sheer fascination: the seascape was unreal, all black and white (except for the flags adorning the junk), with the tiny islands and cliffs almost floating. It was nothing short of magical.

I soon got used to everything being wet too.

We moored in a little bay where some people, most people actually, went canoeing. I wouldn’t ever have dared. What if I couldn’t find my way back?? Sometimes my imagination is just a bit too vivid.

While we were moored the captain raised the sail, I suppose only because it looked pretty. There was absolutely no wind and the ship wasn’t going anywhere.

As darkness fell, the magic continued.

As soon as I got out of my cabin early the following morning I felt that the air was different. I touched the railing and it was dry! There was still some mist, but it didn’t look the same.

The morning programme was one of these tourist visits to a pearl farm, where my fellow passengers on the junk showed very little interest in buying anything at all. However, I had just the previous day lost a necklace with a pendant in Hanoi, so I actually welcomed this visit since I thought a little pearl on a chain might be a good replacement. I found what I was looking for, and that indeed awoke the buying instinct in the others! The pearl farm made good business that morning.

The embroidering ladies in Sapa

“Come sit down with us”, said the lady with a warm smile (the one looking at the camera in the photo here below). Rather, that’s what I concluded that she said since she gesticulated to me to sit down as she pulled out a traditional very low Vietnamese stool for me, like the ones they were sitting on. She was embroidering with a group of friends in the village Nam Cang, in the Sapa region.

The inhabitants in Nam Cang are of the Red Dao minority tribe. Ladies very often wear the traditional head dress you can see here and look at their pants: embroidered all over in a geometrical pattern. And they all seemed so welcoming.

Of course I accepted the invitation and sat down with the ladies. The verbal exchange was somewhat limited: I spoke to them in Swedish and English, and they addressed me in the Red Dao language. But they had no problems understanding what I wanted to know about their embroidery: yes, they had made their own pants and they often sat in that particular spot, central in the village, together. They sold a few items, including bags and purses (which they showed me and which I found difficult to resist buying), but no pants. At least they didn’t have any available there and then. I would have loved a pair.

On the previous day I had had my first encounter with a Red Dao lady with a warm smile. She was with some friends at a popular panoramic view stop on the road from Mu Cang Chai to Sapa. They sold a few items that they had embroidered and also other things such as ginseng roots.

On the way from Sapa town to Nam Cang there were ladies embroidering along the way and as we arrived at our lodge, the Riverside lodge, the ladies working there were sitting by the entrance, busy with embroidery.

One of my worse subjects in school was embroidery. I was very impressed by their skills.

After dinner there was a surprise concert for us six guests in the lodge. Three ladies were singing and three men played traditional instruments. The trumpeter had some issues with his mouthpiece, so he went to the kitchen to sort out the problem in order not to disturb. All the while the ladies were singing. He blew forcefully. His efforts were more than audible in the dining room and it was hard not to laugh at the cacophony when the wailing trumpet sounds mixed with the singing. I admire the ladies who just kept on, totally undisturbed. The mouthpiece problems were eventually sorted out and the performance could go on as planned, ending with us all, singers, musicians, staff and tourists, walking around the dining room in a procession.