Fishing boats in the dawn light at Van Gia on the southern coast of Vietnam.
Lak Lake lies below me and to the east the sky is rapidly brightening. A beautiful sky, soft with warm light reflects on the water. Some fishermen in their dugout canoes are making their way across the lake. It’s a lovely sight, but I’m a little too high up the side of a hill to create a composition I’d prefer. Today is my last sunrise here. It’s time to continue my meandering trip to the coast. The plan is that today, along with my friend Duong, I will ride west into an area I haven’t visited before. He knows a number of Ede ethnic minority villages around here and wants to introduce me to them. I’m keen. Then we will turn north and visit some waterfalls before overnighting in the provincial capital, Buon Ma Thuot.
We set off after a good breakfast. The road is good and with the exception of a few suicidal chickens there is no traffic. The rice fields are emerald green, contrasting with the dark greens of the forested hills and the sky is a deep blue with a light scattering of white clouds. It’s a perfect day to be on the road with nothing to do except explore and hopefully make a few photographs. It doesn’t last. We turn off the tarmac onto a dirt track which winds up the side of a hill. The bright red soil around here is the product of countless eons of erosion of volcanic rock. It’s nutrient rich and great for the local farmers. It’s not so good for motorbikes. Within a few meters the front wheel of Duong’s bike locks up, held fast by thick mud. There’s nothing else for it, we head a little way into the jungle and break off a few small branches with which to gouge out the mud. A few minutes later we’re on the move again, but covered in almost as much mud as the bikes. We make it almost to the top of the hill before were forced to stop again and then it’s out with the sticks once more and we repeat the whole process.
The first village we visit is a bit of a disappointment. The people are wonderful and very welcoming to some strange westerner they’ve never met before. The problem is that they, like most others, have benefited from Vietnam's rapid economic growth. They have understandably replaced their drafty and leaky traditional wooden homes with nice new brick built ones. No one can begrudge them their improved living conditions, I certainly don’t, but it doesn’t make for a good photograph. With a final wave goodbye, Duong and I continue down the track. It’s the same story at the next two villages. It doesn’t matter. The countryside is beautiful around here and I’m enjoying myself. By late morning we have almost reached dray sap, one of a series of impressive waterfalls on the Serapok River. I know that this isn’t the best time of year to view the falls, but with all the recent rain maybe there’s more water than is usual. It turns out there isn’t. I find one composition I like; a view of the falls with a nice rocky river in the foreground to add interest and a leading line. The only thing is that to get this photograph I have to position myself on a rickety old suspension bridge which is swaying in the breeze. No neutral density filters this time. No long exposure and no great photograph. Oh well, onwards to Buon Ma Thuot.
Our plan had been that when we reached the city Duong would return to Da Lat and that I would continue alone. The thing is that we spent longer at Lak Lake than intended and I had told my wife that I would be home… today! A quick phone call sorted that out. She has learnt through experience never to believe any times I provide when I’m on the road. My record to date is arriving home about two weeks late. That’s not bad. Before I was married I never even used to bother making a schedule. My friends were used to me disappearing for three months at a time. Anyway, back to business. It’s getting late and I’m hungry. Eating well, when you’re on the road, is important. It can be quite physically draining and meals are often missed due to very early starts or the long distances that need to be covered. Luckily eating well in Vietnam is not only cheap and easy, it’s an absolute pleasure. A delicious dinner washed down with a few cold beers and I’m ready for anything.
It’s almost time for dinner again. Tonight, however, I’m in Ninh Hoa. I arrived here after a long, slow and pretty uncomfortable ride on a local bus. The driver was obviously of the belief that as long as you used the horn it wasn’t necessary to touch the brake pedal. Fortunately the engine had not been serviced since the liberation of Saigon in 1975 and so we weren’t able to pick up much speed, except for the downhill stretches, which were terrifying. Nevertheless, I had arrived safe and sound with nothing more to show for the experience than a few more grey hairs. I’ve arranged with the guest house where I’m staying to rent a scooter in the morning, so now I walk into town to find a food stall I know well from previous visits. They serve a stunning fish broth and noodle soup with five different kinds of fish balls, along with a liberal sprinkling of fresh herbs and green chilies. It’s one of my favorites and I have two large bowls. Delicious! Tomorrow is intended to be an easy day. Ride a short distance up the coast to a little village called Van Gia and then wait until I can get a nice cloudy sunrise over the bay. Simple, as long as the weather cooperates.
As usual, it’s dark as I leave Ninh Hoa. It only takes half an hour or so to reach the beach I’m headed for and there is no traffic on Highway One. This is a good thing as this road with its endless stream of speeding trucks is one of the few things in my life that truly terrifies me. I arrive without mishap and leave my bike at an early morning coffee stall which serves the early-rising fishermen. The sky is turning a deep blue to the east and I can just make out the shape of Diep Son Island in the dim distance. I can’t believe my luck. There’s a heavy blanket of cloud stretching across the horizon. This is exactly what I wanted. Now I just have to hope the sun breaks through. I set up my tripod and camera. One test shot and then it’s just a matter of waiting. That’s the story of my life. Hurry up and wait. It’s something I’m well used to and it doesn’t bother me. After all, that’s really what the job is: choosing the right spot and then waiting for nature to do the rest. My timing is perfect and I don’t have to wait long. Today nature decides to favor me. A bright yellow sun shines down on the sea. Four silhouetted fishing boats are perfectly positioned in the now golden water of the bay. The clouds are still dark and brooding. I couldn’t have asked for more. It’s not often that everything comes together on the very first attempt, but this morning it has. The last twenty minutes has made this whole trip worthwhile. I love my job. Kugara zvakanaka!
Dawn at Lak Lake in the Southern highlands of Vietnam.
A longhouse of the Ede ethnic minority group in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
A waterfall in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
Dusk over flooded rice paddies near Van Gia on the southern coast of Vietnam.
Two Ede ethnic minority women at Lak Lake
Da Lat is a delightful little city nestled among forested hills, some three hundred kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City. At an altitude of fifteen hundred meters it has a cool temperate climate, which is always a relief when visiting from the sweltering tropical lowlands. I’ve been here for a few days, enjoying a short holiday with my wife, but now it’s time to get back to work and things are not looking promising. There’s a tropical storm off the coast and the television in our hotel room is showing images of uprooted trees, downed power lines and beached fishing boats. If that’s not enough, after two days of wonderful sunshine, we woke this morning the sound of falling rain. Dark clouds hang low over the city, hiding the hill tops. The rain isn’t that heavy, but it’s driven by a strong wind and just below our hotel window I can see a woman fighting with a pink umbrella which seems determined to take to the skies.
My wife, who is a lot more sensible than I am, has already booked a comfortable coach ride home. I’m wondering if I should join her. A friend, Duong, who lives here in the highlands, assures me the rain will only last for a day or so. We agree to meet in half an hour. Soon I’m in kitted out in wet weather gear. My rucksack, wrapped in thick black refuse bags, is strapped to the back of the bike and after a quick kiss on the cheek, off I go. Although the plan is to head north, the rugged terrain requires that for the first fifty kilometers or so we take a road south. The rain isn’t too bad, but the wind on occasion threatens to blow us right of the road. The first stop was to have been the beautiful elephant falls, but there’s no point in even stopping. Photography is impossible. About an hour later, Duong, who knows this area like the back of his hand, pulls over. A short walk through dripping green bushes and we are out of the rain, sitting in a makeshift thatched hut and warming up with a few mugs of the delicious local coffee. I could happily sit here all day, but the rain has stopped and the clouds are lifting. It’s time to go.
I climb off the bike. I lost all feeling in my bottom some hours ago and it’s almost impossible to stand up straight. The rest of my body aches, I’m totally soaked and my fingers are so cold I can’t straighten them. I’m happy. We’ve reached Lien Son, a village on the shores of Lak Lake, one of the most beautiful spots in the southern highlands. To make things better, a blanket of stars twinkles across the heavens. The journey, however, has been less than enjoyable. After our coffee we turned north onto a bumpy tarmac strip generously littered with an assortment of potholes, water buffalo and a wide variety of domestic livestock. Highway 27 began by climbing hundreds of meters to the crests of treeless peaks where the winds forced us to seek shelter in a small K’ho ethnic minority village. While Duong drank tea with the headman in his longhouse, I played with the children outside, taking my first few photographs of the trip. A little later we made our way down the twisting road to lower climes where the wind was less ferocious, but the rain was heavier. Within an hour we were climbing through the clouds again and I swear my soaked shirt collar was starting to freeze, but Duong just laughed at me when I told him. None of this mattered now. We were here. A hot shower, dry clothes, a good dinner and a long sleep was promised. Tomorrow, as they say, is another day.
Duong is a great traveling companion, but he’s not a photographer. I leave him to his dreams and make my way along a muddy track to Y Jut village. In the predawn light I pass by the wooden longhouses of the Ede ethnic minority people who live around here, and make my way towards the lake shore. The silence is disturbed only by the occasional dog bark. I know exactly where I’m headed; a spot where I have a lovely panoramic view of the lake with the rising sun hidden behind some distant hills. If I’m lucky there will be some fishing boats tied up along the shore. These are carved out of a single massive tree trunk and many of them are far older than me. The Ede are no longer permitted to cut down these ancient trees to make boats this way. In the gloom I can see that I’m in luck. There are a few dugouts right here. Yeah! It’s time to get to work. I get out my tripod and set up. The light is getting quite nice, but I can’t find an angle I like. I can’t get low enough or close enough to the dugouts that I want to use as foreground interest. I take a shot and start looking for another composition.
It’s almost eight o’clock and I’m making my way back to the lodge for breakfast. The sky to the east is now covered with scattered clouds racing across the horizon, driven by the still strong winds coming in from the coast. Just up ahead I see two women preparing their boat to set off over the lake. This has potential. I pick up my pace and glance down to check my camera settings. Everything looks good. I raise the camera to my eye. Nice light, but the composition doesn’t work. A few more steps. Love the composition, but the light isn’t great. Too much back-lighting and contrast. I take a photograph. Another step and I take one more. Then the one woman notices me for the first time. I call out “Xin Chao” (hello) and as she looks right at the camera I squeeze the shutter release. I hope I got that one. Turns out they are taking breakfast to their husbands who are checking their fishing nets on the other side of the lake. I say goodbye and head off for my own breakfast.
Dugout canoes on the shore of Lak Lake in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
Fishermen on Lake Lake in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
Fishermen hauling in the overnight catch at Lak Lake in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
A K'ho woman and her children in a village north of Da Lat in the Southern highlands of Vietnam.