Friday, 30 March 2012

Getting Lucky with the Light at Lak Lake

After visiting the colourful market in Da Lat we packed our things and headed north towards Lak Lake, stopping on the way to see Cuong Hoan Silk factory. It was worlds apart to the one we saw in Cambodia. Where in Cambodia they did everything by hand, here they had machines to do it all. From unwinding the silk from the cocoon, to the weaving loom it was all done by massive machines. This made the silk much faster to manufacture, but quality was sacrificed. To be honest, we preferred the silk from Cambodia. However these creatures rounded out another day of exotic food tastings, where we sampled slow cooked porcupine at lunch, followed by crunchy, nutty, corn flavoured silkworms for dinner.

Cuong Hoan Silk Factory
After checking in to our hotel at Lak Lake we headed to Jun village of the M'nong ethnic minority on the shore of the lake. There are many subjects to photograph in villages; houses, animals, fruits and other food products. But the most photogenic would have to be the people, and above all, the children.

Charging the Shooters - Jun Village, Lak Lake
One thing that I really enjoy in Asia is that it is still ok to take photos of children. Usually they love having their photos taken, and when showed to the parents you get a lot of laughs. But in Australia I don’t take photos of children. The paranoid privacy issues, media beat up and fearful, aggressive parents just make the experience a hassle. It also helps that the kids here are much more entertaining and active outdoors. Who really wants a photo of a kid sitting in front of a TV playing video games?

The next organised shoot was to have Dag Nan and Son (an elephant and his mahout) walk into the water of the lake with the plan to shoot their silhouette against the setting sun. The planets must have aligned or something as the sunset was a ripper. Having the elephant, sky and reflections together created the magical three elements needed to give this photo that wow factor.

Silhouettes at Lak Lake
Before dinner the M’nong people treated us to a traditional dance show where we learned some of the customs of this matriarchal society.

M'nong Traditional Dance - Lak Lake
It was quite impressive, especially the fire dance that almost burnt the house down when one of the candles fell through a crack and the floor itself started smoking. A mild panic but quick hands put it out and doused it with water, while we doused our own wits by drinking the communal rice wine at the centre of the circle.

M'nong Man with Fire - Lak Lake
M'nong Traditional Fire Dance - Lak Lake
The planets must have aligned again in the morning as the sunrise really worked out for me. It was not your typical pinks and oranges; instead a beautiful blue enveloped the view, which matched perfectly with the grey rock close to shore.

Into the Blue - Lak Lake
The tripod had been well used during the tour and needed a rest. It was time to try and take some photos on the move. And move we did. It was a little bumpy and rocked around a lot, but being on the back of an elephant was quite the experience. The movement took a bit to get used to; it’s very different to a horse.

Tok's mahout named Hien - Lak Lake
Hien led us out on the back of Tok, who walked along the road a bit at first. It was amusing when scooters went past - the scale was way off. Then it was time to get wet and we started walking through the lake. It surprised me how deep we went and how useful a trunk is. The water level was above the elephant’s eyes, but it just stuck its trunk out of the water and kept on walking.

Our friends on the photography tour enjoying an elephant ride through Lak Lake
The skin and feet are also something special, so much texture.

Texture of an Elephant Trunk - Lak Lake
Dag Nan's Beautiful Feet - Lak Lake

Thursday, 29 March 2012

To Da Lat and Beyond

Despite the morning's strong coffee, 3:30am was simply too early a start for sunrise at the sand dunes, and I napped heavily afterwards as the bus took us to our next destination. Along the rugged coastline the photographers stopped the bus in several places to capture scenes of rural life from what seemed like a bygone era.

Beasts of Burden - oxcarts hauling riversand up the banks. On the road to Dalat
We visited the 13th century brick Po Klong Garai Cham Towers perched on the top of a hill, built in honour of the king of Champa. Although the Cham kingdom no longer exists, its people and culture still survive as a minority ethnic group in Vietnam. Malcolm our tour leader organised for this wonderfully photogenic Cham man in his traditional garb to play instruments and flash his wicked, toothless grin.

Windblown Cham Man - Po Klong Garai Cham Towers
Cham Man Drumming - Po Klong Garai Cham Towers
We stayed the night in a plush hotel with an awesome sunset view over the town of Da Lat.

Sunset over Da Lat
The wooden train ride from old Da Lat train station to Trai Mat was brief but very scenic, passing through colonial town buildings and hilly farmland. We visited the Chua Linh Phuoc Pagoda which was covered entirely with coloured tiles made from broken pottery (notably, made in china), with the exception of some dragon scales made of glass pieces from beer bottles. We climbed the nine levels of the bell tower pagoda, avoiding temptations to ring the massive 8500 kg elaborately decorated brass bell. Sipping cups of yogurt and coffee, we observed several bus loads of elderly Vietnamese tourists disembarking. Enquiring, we discovered that these women were "hero mothers", mothers of North Vietnamese soldiers who had died during the war. The government provides these women with a pension and occasionally offers free tours around the country, but this benefit does not extend to mothers of killed South Vietnamese soldiers. Ah, the spoils of victory.

We visited the new age Cao Dai Temple near Da Lat, with its cool hall and bright colours. An east-meets-west faith/philosophy originating in Vietnam, it combines aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity, declaring such prophets as Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, William Shakespeare and Victor Hugo. Women were requested to only enter the temple from the left, and men from the right. Also perched on top of a hill, it held commanding views of the countryside.

Cao Dai Temple - Da Lat
Another Buddhist temple (this time we snuck in a solid ring of the bell) where a slightly nutty old local man regaled us with tales of the war against the VC. He didn't speak much English but his charades of bombings and injuries were easy enough to understand.

Memories of a War Veteran - near Da Lat
The photographers spread themselves out for different shooting angles at the popular Datanla Falls. Walking about was made super easy by way of bobsled ride, cable car and glass elevator, but this was a luxury tour after all. We rewarded ourselves for our hard work with yummy chocolate ice creams.

Datanla Falls near Da Lat
Datanla Falls near Da Lat
We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the beauty and serenity that was the grounds of Truc Lam Zen Monastery. This was a peaceful place for devout Buddhist monks to live, where even their pet husky was a strict vegetarian. The gardens, tucked into the hills beside a lake, were stunning in full bloom, as was the shadehouse of shapely orchids carefully tended by the monks.

Budding Yellow Orchids - Truc Lam Zen Monastery, Da Lat
Pink Orchid Row - Truc Lam Zen Monastery, Da Lat
Dinner was Vietnamese beef hotpot, a communal meal whereupon a plate of thinly sliced raw beef is cooked by the diners themselves in a common hotpot of boiling broth and eaten in a make-your-own rice paper roll alongside piles of fresh herbs and vegetables. This was followed by another common hotpot of an aromatic slow-cooked beef stew eaten with cook-your-own noodles. The rest was a little hazy, as the entire meal was interspersed frequently with Khanh calling us to shots of the local herbal flavoured ruou (rice wine).

Thankfully, the rice wine did not erupt in a painful hangover, so we woke up to a fresh early morning at Da Lat's bustling central market. It was a wonderfully colourful fresh produce market, and we loved the sights, smells and atmosphere of this outdoor street affair. It was interesting to note that there is always something new to see at the markets as we travel through different regions.

All the Ways of a Coconut - Da Lat Central Market
Coconut, Coffee and a Stone - Da Lat Central Market
Coloured Bowls, Coloured Peas - Da Lat Central Market
Returning from Da Lat Central Market

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Mui Ne Sand Dunes

I have looked forward to seeing these from the initial planning of our trip and the photo tour had a few special photo shoots organised for us. We left the hotel early and headed north to arrive at the dunes while it was still dark.

Our tour leader, Malcolm arranged a few models to walk along the dunes wearing traditional Vietnamese conical hats and carrying baskets. As the sun rose behind one of the girls I captured this shot that I particularly liked.

Rising in the East - sand dunes north of Mui Ne
While the others were taking photos of another model, playing with sand (not my kind of thing). I headed off to capture what I love, the landscape. Sand dunes would have to be one of the most photogenic landscapes I have found. I loved the way the fine texture of sand, the ripples on the surface and the curves of the dunes played with the light. It all just worked. Here are a few of my efforts, although this is something I need to improve on and I hope to practice more when we return to Australia.

Ripples - sand dunes north of Mui Ne
Curves - sand dunes north of Mui Ne
Sweeping Shadows - sand dunes north of Mui Ne
A Long Line of Shadows - sand dunes north of Mui Ne
Sand Wave - sand dunes north of Mui Ne

Monday, 26 March 2012

Fishing Village Life - Mui Ne

The photography tour took us from Saigon to Mui Ne, via Phan Thiet town, where hundreds of fishing boats were moored. It was sunset but the boats were not going out tonight; apparently fuel prices were too high. While the boats were not behaving photogenically, the overcast sky meant that some of the town streets were,

Brushed Grey - Phan Thiet
… especially these two boys who insisted on stopping on a busy bridge road during peak hour traffic to have their photo taken.

Eager for a Snap - on the bridge at Phan Thiet
Dinner was another walk on the wild side. It was up to Kevan and I to dig into the most exotic thing we could find on the Rung Forest restaurant menu. A candlelit basket of crunchy grilled crickets, accompanied with grilled eel and grilled frog, washed down with Tiger beer - delicious!

The Rung Forest Grilled Special of Eel, Frog and Cricket - Mui Ne
Crunchy! Tia eating grilled cricket - Mui Ne
It was an early pre-dawn start, something that I struggled to get used to with this photography tour. But being able to watch a fishing village wake up was worth it. We were there just as the light began to glow, and the first of the local women arrived to receive the night's catch.

Boats in the Bay - Mui Ne
Basket boats bobbed in the water, waiting.

Basket Boat Trio - Mui Ne
Basket Boat on the Beach - Mui Ne
And slowly, one by one, boats arrived. Nets were offloaded from fishing boats to basket boats, which were then expertly paddled into shore.

Paddling a Basket Boat - Mui Ne
Then the contents of the nets were sorted, weighed, haggled over and sold to the villagers who came down looking for produce of the sea.

Shoppers waiting for fish to be sorted - Mui Ne
Husbands do the fishing, wives do the sorting and selling, but the few boats that had ventured out that night were not very successful. One woman commented that while a usual night's catch would bag ten US dollars worth of fish, crustaceans and shellfish, this catch would only fetch five US dollars.

Will There Be Fish Today? Wives waiting for fishermen to return - Mui Ne
The fish were tiny, with all manner of minuscule reef life dragged along to the surface, and nothing was put back into the sea. I struggled to understand their thinking when taking small fish, with no sense of allowing the fish population to breed or grow bigger, but with such low incomes and limited laws or education, we could only sigh and note how fishing village life would be hard.

But you know what, things could always be worse. Life as a fighting cockerel is most certainly not all roses. Although somewhat illegal in this country, breeding and betting on tough, kick-boxing chickens is common, and down on the beach in Mui Ne a flurry of feathers caught our eye.

Flurry of the Phoenix - Cock Fight Training, Mui Ne
Thankfully, these two were only in training, so no knives were attached to their feet, but when money is on the table, no doubt they would be armed and death will await.

Owned - Cock Fight Sparring, Mui Ne
One disturbing sight was shaving the fighting cocks. When fighting, any bits of skin that cockerels naturally grow become grabbing points for their opponents. So the birds are held down and the flesh is literally cut off.

Shaving - Cock Fight Preparation, Mui Ne
Life can be very tough.

One Tough Chicken - Cock Fight Preparation, Mui Ne

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Working the Streets of Vietnam

For most of our trip I have been capturing street scenes. It’s a major part of travel and the photography tour didn’t disappoint here; we had plenty of chances to work the streets.

We started at 23/9 Park, Saigon. Locals were doing their morning exercises and playing various games. Stalls were setting up across the road to feed the hungry athletes.

One cannot kick a shuttle cock any old way - 23/9 Park, Saigon
Breakfast Setup - Saigon
Binh Tay Market in Cho Lon (Chinatown) was next on our itinerary and the piles of salt caught everyone’s eye. I wandered off and found an impressive variety of thongs.

Sweet, Sour and Salty Salt - Binh Tay Market, Saigon
Pick a Plugger - Binh Tay Market, Saigon
Temples are another place to photograph, but I usually avoid them as I feel its wrong to distract people from their prayers. But when there were six other photographers walking around with cameras bigger than mine, I thought it would be ok. Plus, how could you not take photos with this little boy hanging around.

Playful Prayer Time - Thien Hau Pagoda, Saigon
Young and Old - Praying at Thien Hau Pagoda, Saigon