All in "Vietnam"
Nha Trang Blues

Maybe I plan too much? Maybe it's not a good thing to do if you're a photographer... I mean isn't photography all about waiting for that exact moment when whole universe comes together to provide that 'perfect' image. Don't the gods of photography smile on those who randomly wander the surface of the globe with camera in hand and hunger in their eyes... waiting with their trembling finger on the shutter release for that one defining vision of the world to smack them in the face?

I mean, take for example, my last trip to the coastal resort city of Nha Trang. Here in Vietnam one of the most important factors for a photographer to consider is the weather: when it's sunny in the South it's raining in the North, when the sky is blue in the mountains we have cyclones on the coast. My year is planned out even before most people a thinking about scratching around in the attic to find last years christmas tree lights.

For those of you who might be considering a trip to Vietnam a rule of thumb is to visit the South (Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta) between November and March, to visit the North (Hanoi, Ha Long and Sapa) around June or July and to visit Nha Trang at almost any time of the year. The warm waters and golden beaches of Nha Trang enjoy over two hundred and fifty days of sunshine a year. It's almost impossible to go to Nha Trang at the wrong time of year

I had booked my air ticket to this tropical paradise and then sat down to plan out my 'script'. This involves creating a day by day schedule of where I want to be at what time, what I want to shoot and from what positions or angles, an idea of how many shots I think I'll need in landscape or portrait format, wide angle or detail... whatever might be relevant to ensuring that at the end of the day I have a complete collection of beautiful, interesting, informative and descriptive images.

Anyway the morning of departure arrived and I woke in a great mood, brushed my teeth, packed my bags... clothing and toiletries 3.5kg, tripods 7.5kg, camera and equipment bag 12kg... and set off for Tan Son Nhat airport and a wonderful week in Nha Trang. The flight took less than an hour and as the airbus flew over the coast of Cam Ranh bay I could see nothing but blue water, kilometers of white beaches backed by green mountains. Here and there white walled houses showed through dense coconut trees, fishing boats ploughed through the ocean leaving long white wakes and close to shore I could see the darker lines of coral reefs and sandy bottomed lagoons through the crystal clear waters of the South China Sea.

Cam Ranh airport is about thirty minutes from downtown Nha Trang and after five minutes I had cleared baggage collection and was tearing down the new coastal highway. On my left rugged mountains cloaked in dense jungle rose to meet the deep blue sky and on my right lay untouched coves and rocky little peninsulas which jutted out into the endless blue of the sea. Although classified as a city, Nha Trang is in reality a small town with only one main road which runs along the beach. I stayed at the same hotel where I always stay; two stars for $14 a night can’t be beaten, and it’s only a two minute walk from the beachfront. By the time I’d booked in, unpacked and had a shower it was mid afternoon… time for a walk.

I took my beloved little Fuji with a nice f/2.8 wide angle lens, slung my small tripod over my shoulder and eagerly set off. The main public beach runs for kilometers on either side of the city; a 50m belt of clean white sand bordered by landscaped gardens and coconut trees. Here and there are clusters of thatched umbrellas to provide shade for overweight lobster colored tourists. Every few hundred meters or so, set well back into the trees, are rustic cafes, bars and restaurants. As a matter of tradition I wandered down to my favorite; the Nha Trang Sailing Club. This place is a Nha Trang institution.

The Sailing Club consists of two large thatched areas open to the beach, the one is a bar and lounge with comfortable sofas which make you want to sit there all day, the other is a more formal restaurant complete with an amazing wine list and romantic lighting in the evening. The service here is as good as anywhere I’ve ever been. It wasn’t long before I had a delicious ‘sinh to’ or Vietnamese fruit smoothie in front of me; a tall glass of fresh apple and blueberry mixed with crushed ice and cream. Having missed lunch I also gave into temptation and ordered a light smoked turkey breast salad with crisp bits of crunchy bacon and blue cheese… it’s a hard life sometimes.

By about 16h30 the sun was low over the mountains and the light was nice, clear and warm. I took a stroll along the beachfront. A short walk provided a few standard stock images of white sand, deck chairs and blue water. A few minutes later my week and life almost came to a rather unplanned and abrupt end. A rather large American tourist had been parasailing over the bay, and the crew were struggling to land him on the beach. The speed boat had tried twice already and was now slowing for the third attempt. The service crew were out in force to catch the now nervous and cursing tourist, and bring him back to earth without too much of a thump. I’ve watched these same guys do this hundreds of times, and it was obvious that even they were getting worried… I mean who wants one hundred and twenty odd kilos of panicking Westerner to land on you?

Well, with the white sand, turquoise ocean, deep blue afternoon sky and the vibrant reds and whites of the parasail I just had to get a shot. I rushed in and tried to compose a portrait format picture with the parasail filling the top two thirds of the image. Blast! Wide angle lens… not the best thing for this kind of work. I moved in closer… click… click… One of the service crew I knew flashed me a rather sick smile which didn’t reach his eyes. The speedboat cut it’s engine and the parasail lost lift, he was coming down… click… click… hands reaching up to grab his legs… click… click… Suddenly the day grew dark. I was in shadow. He was coming down right on top of me! I scrambled backwards and almost tripped over myself in haste. The guy was down and on his feet, A perfect landing. It wouldn’t have been had I still been there… he landed on the exact spot where I had been standing!

Now everyone was smiles. The American was patting the crew on their backs and laughing. I casually turned and walked slowly away. I’d just made one of the oldest mistakes in the book. When viewing the world through a camera lens perspective changes. A wise photographer always keeps his other eye free to get a better view of reality. Well, no harm done. I thanked my lucky stars, however, that he hadn’t landed on me… I mean I would never have lived it down. To have survived combat, firefights, riots and all manner of extremely angry wildlife, only to be taken out by an obese American falling from the sky. My friends would die laughing if that’s the way my obituary read.

Further down the beach I found a nice spot. Set up my tripod, composed a picture; dark palm trees, sand and sea with Hon Tre island in the distance and a large sky just waiting to turn every pink, red and gold in the rainbow. This is the reality of most of what I do. Find the spot, get ready and wait for the light. Light is everything. If you are prepared to wait, to sit around for an hour or two doing nothing, to let nature do it’s thing in it’s own time you always get the shot you want. Only one problem this time. It never happened. The sky went from a beautiful pale blue to dull gray. Storm clouds had moved in over the mountains behind the city and the sun was gone for the day.

Oh well. That’s the way it goes. Nothing to worry about. I had another week to get my sunset shots. I packed up and contentedly wandered back up the beach. My favorite sofa at the Sailing Club was free, so I sat back, a smile on my face and ordered an ice cold tiger beer. Ahh… a soft chair, a balmy sea breeze, the sounds of quiet jazz and the distant crash of waves… and a good larger. Almost an hour later a summoned up the energy to move, only to walk a few minutes into town to a restaurant I’m rather fond of. So the day ended with another salad and a delicious sweet and succulent lobster. Seafood is so fresh and cheap in Nha Trang (along the whole coast, to be honest) this is not the extravagance it might seem to be. And I do love lobster. After that it was off to bed… I had plans to be up early the next morning and head out to the Hon Chong peninsular for some shots of sunrise over the sea.

I’m a morning person. Around 04h30 everyday my eyes pop open, I’m wide awake and can’t wait to get out of bed. Today was no exception. I rose and made my way through to the bathroom… halfway, I stopped… what was that noise? No! It can’t be…. yes it was… rain! I stood on my balcony beneath low gray clouds and stared at the colorless vision before me. After muttering a few choice words which would have done my Australian friend Peter proud, I headed back to the bathroom. I’m nothing if not persistent. Twenty minutes later I was crouched under a dripping beach umbrella waiting to see what the day turned up. Morning cloud is not uncommon along the coast, and by eight or so it’s normally been burnt off by the hot tropical sun. But no sunrise shots today. No problem, I have a whole week…

…My eyes blinked open, and almost closed again. Today was Monday, in five hours I’d be back on a plane and heading towards Ho Chi Minh City and home. In the last week there had not been one clear, cloudless sunrise or a single decent sunset. Sure, there had been a few hours of sun here and there that I’d been able to use, but the score was clearly: Nha Trang 10 - VinaPix 0. I had spent more time reading cheap paperback novels and drinking coffee than anything else.I had even been reduced to watching terrible cooking shows in Spanish on the hotels cable TV. I was fed up.

Lethargically I made my way to the balcony and parted the curtains to behold a dark, but cloudless dawn. Not today! My last day! What have I ever done to be tormented like this? No shower…forget the teeth… grab the camera… oh… don’t forget the tripod… Go… go… go… By the time I reached Hon Chong the sun was already above the horizon, but it was a beautiful morning. The air was cool and clear, the sea a gorgeous translucent turquoise and the sky an infinite canopy of rich blues. Find my spot, Set up my tripod, bracket my shots… click…. click…click. Nice, now where’s my polarizer? Where’s my polarizer!!! (On the table in my hotel room where I’d left it after cleaning my gear last night). Took the shots, then I was racing a few kilometers up the coast as fast as my rented scooter would take me.

I captured most of the shots I wanted. Not as nice as I had hoped, and not as many as I needed, but usable. A weeks worth of work crammed into just under five hours. Not the first time I’ve had to do it, and probably not the last, but it was done and the images were safe on my hard drive. I made the airport just before final call, and as I sat on the plane and gazed out the window at the beautiful clear waters and endless, unspoiled white beaches of the Vietnamese coastline, I wished that I’d brushed my teeth. Kugara zvakanaka!

The Ba Ponagar Cham Towers in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

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Travel Photographers...

Travel photography is, by its very nature, difficult to define. An even harder, if not impossible task, is to identify and define a ‘travel photographer’. I have done the impossible. Following are five distinct and definitive schools of travel photography.

The Usain Bolt School

The title gives this one away. Acolytes of the Bolt school of travel photography attempt super-human imaging results by being on location for less time than it takes to unpack a small suitcase. Speed is everything. Photographers of this bent usually arrive out of breath after a last minute budget flight. They visit a local tour agency before checking into their hostel and book three one-day sightseeing tours in a row. If they’re lucky they can even fit in a half-day city tour before sunset. The methodology is simple: jump out of the coach before everyone else, shoot wide-angle to get the ‘hero’ shot and then use a standard prime to get the ‘detail’ shots while hopefully avoiding the other three dozen tourists that the bus also spewed out. Total time on location: thirty minutes. Repeat six or seven times a day over the following three days and these productive individuals hop back onto the plane to return home happy in the knowledge that they can cross another country off the list.

The James Bond School

In essence, the James Bond school of thought maintains that a photographer must be flown first class and then booked into a luxury hotel by his or her client. After rising late and enjoying an extensive breakfast, they stroll out to the hotels pool area and snap off a frame or two (blue cocktail in the foreground with out of focus blue swimming pool and cloudless blue sky in the background) before returning to the lounge to order a morning coffee. Exhausted after such productivity they wait until the Michelin quality lunch is served and then take a much deserved nap. Being true professionals and determined to give their clients value for money, they rise at about five and take a short stroll to capture that obligatory sunset image. Having achieved more than could reasonably be expected within any twenty-four-hour period, they retire in satisfaction to the pool deck for an alcoholic beverage, which they add to their generous expense account. This doesn’t mean that they days hard work is complete, however, they still need to decide on whether to have the duck or lobster for dinner.

The Bear Grylls School

Although easily identifiable these travel photographers are rarely seen. Clad in khaki and wearing combat boots, they are usually festooned with National Geographic branded equipment. The underlying premise of this group is that every image must arise from an ‘authentic’ experience. Not for them is the tour bus and local guide. Meals must be taken at restaurants (preferably on the street) where other tourists cannot be seen. Travel is conducted with paper maps and as many different forms of local transport as possible, to cover the shortest distance. All communication must also be conducted in the local language by use of a phrase book – irrespective of how well the locals speak English. The photographic goal is not the final image, but rather the time, confusion, misunderstandings and discomfort it took to arrive at taking the image. In addition, the one imaging virtue prized by these photographers above all others, is to take a photograph that no one else has taken before – even if that is because no one has ever seen any merit in taking such a photograph before.

The Bill Bryson School

In the words of the great man himself the modus operandi of these travel photographers is to visit the most beautiful places and have the worst possible time. The key to their success is an almost total lack of preparation and planning. Logistically it’s important to always find the worst accommodation possible and technically it’s essential to have left the lens they most need at home. Vital to artists of this school is the ability to arrive on location the day after a unique local festival has ended or, failing that, to at least arrive during the winter rains or monsoon season when sunlight is limited to less than ten minutes a day. Visually their work is well composed and exposed, but by its very nature cannot contain any distinctive cultural elements. Indeed, if done well, it should be almost impossible to know where the photograph was actually taken. Where they excel, like their master, is in writing and publishing blogs of their excruciatingly painful experiences, accompanied obviously, by rather boring images.

The Arnold Schwarzenegger School

These individuals are the true heroes of the travel photography community. Not only do they pack, bring and carry every bit of photographic equipment they own everywhere they go, followers of Arnie take great pride in buying kilos of new ‘essential’ kit for every trip they make. Online, ‘Arnie’s’ are well known for their long forum discussions regarding how to avoid airline weight restrictions. On location they are barely visible, buried as they are, under a bulging Lowepro backpack and one or two more shoulder bags and of course, a massive tripod bag. An obvious advantage to this is, that while they arrive at a location dizzy with dehydration and fatigue, they are so late that all the other tourists and photographers have already left. Sadly they are rarely able to create the photographs they had hoped to, as by the time they have searched through their various bags, found the lens they wanted and a body to attach it to, the sun has gone down and the opportunity for that blue hour photograph has long since passed. Undaunted they will look forward to the next morning’s sunrise shot, although by the time they have arrived and set up lunch is invariably being served at their hotel.

As I write, somewhat tongue in cheek, I am reflecting upon how many of you will recognize, or even identify with, one of these ‘schools’ of travel photography. I am confident, however, that many of you are also wondering upon which group it is that I belong to. Sadly, truth be told, over the last twenty-five years I have flirted with all of the above. Without, I should mention, becoming a certified card-carrying member of any. Travel photography is an evolutionary experience. We all have to start somewhere, and most pass through various phases before arriving at the place which, for the present time, best combines our resources, skills, temperament and photographic goals. The important thing is not so much where you are coming from, but rather, where you are figuratively and literally going, Kugara zvakanaka!

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A Long Road to the Coast - Part Two

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.

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An Empty Chair

I have a friend. In fact, I have more than one friend, which is always a bit of a surprise to anyone who knows me. Anyway this friends name is Binh. I’ve known him for about ten or eleven years now. He works for a tour company here in Ho Chi Minh City. That’s how we met. I was doing a shoot for his boss and, as the accountant, he had to pay me. For some reason which I’ve never thought about too deeply, we just seemed to hit it off. His first suggestion of meeting sometime for a coffee, was followed by the odd night out on the town enjoying more beer than was good for us. Before long we were getting together every second week or so to drink, eat, chat or go somewhere. I remember the first time he invited me back to his home. That was when I first met his mother, Ba Hanh.

Binh’s mother had been born in the mountains North West of Na Noi. She’d had a hard upbringing on a poor farm. Her father owned a little land, but not enough to support his family. Like many, he worked the lands of the village nobles during the daylight hours and struggled to till his own small plot before dawn or after dark. Old Mrs. Hanh once described to me how the family suffered when the French colonial regime conscripted her father to work on a road in a nearby province. With no income, and unable to work the lands she and her children survived by slaughtering and eating their few chickens and ducks… after that they were reduced to scavenging for snakes, frogs and snails in the rice paddies around their village.

In 1941 with the world at war, the Japanese entered Vietnam. Three years later the Japanese army confiscated the rice harvest to feed their own troops and famine spread across the land. People were reduced to eating grass and old leather. Over a million Vietnamese perished. Among them were Mrs. Hanh’s two youngest children. The family walked, and at times even crawled, to the city of Ha Noi in the hope of finding food. But there was none. One evening her husband went out to search for food and did not return. He was never seen again. Over the next few months her two remaining children grew sick, and died. A family of six, reduced to one. After the Japanese came the Chinese, who stripped the city of everything of value and transported it North.

And then… the French returned. President Ho Chi Minh had already declared Vietnam to be a free and independent country, and established a popular government. The French, however, humiliated by the Germans in Europe sought to reclaim their colonial possessions. The result was what is generally called “the First Indochina War” which ended. as everyone knows, with yet another humiliating defeat for the French army at Dien Bien Phu. Following the Geneva conference in 1954 the country was divided into two. The family that Mrs. Hanh had been working for fled to the South, and almost by default she “inherited’ their small dressmaking business. It was five years later, that she married again. He husband had been a soldier at Dien Bien Phu, and after the war had returned to the capital to resume his career as a teacher.

The marriage was a good one. Two older people, both of whom had seen the worst that life had to offer, were more than content with their simple, peaceful existence. They had three children, the youngest being my friend Binh. The years of peace, however, did not last long. By the early 60’s the population of the South was resisting the ever increasingly dictatorial rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, and the North began to send men and munitions to the South. American marines landed at Da Nang in 1965, and the stage was set for another bloody conflict in a land that had known war for over a thousand years. Mrs. Hanh’s husband had wanted to “go South” but was deemed to be too old, and her children were two young. She did, however, volunteer to help at a hospital near their home.

Binh doesn’t remember much from the first years of the war, and by the time he was old enough to remember he had already been evacuated to the countryside. Old Mrs. Hanh remembers it all. She described the tiny bomb shelters build along the streets in which she would cringe alone in the dark as the bombs fell. She told me about the rationing, the shortages and about the sense of pride and purpose she and her neighbors felt in keeping the city running. She laughed as she explained how she kept shutting her eyes as she was taught how to load an anti-aircraft gun on the roof of a nearby apartment building. She once told me, with tears running down her old wrinkled cheeks, about the day she went to work at Bach Mai hospital… only to find it wasn’t there. Obliterated by bombs from a B52. It could very well be the same way that Binh’s older brother died in 1973. Missing in Action somewhere on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Long after the war ended, after finishing university, Binh found a job in Ho Chi Minh City. He brought his new bride and his then widowed mother with him. Every time I visited, old Mrs. Hanh would be sitting in her favorite chair in the corner of Binh’s small living room. Most of the time she watched TV, she really loved TV. No matter what was on, her failing eyes and thick glasses were glued to the screen. Sometimes I’d find here playing with her two grandchildren, telling them Vietnamese folk stories and snippets of family history. And sometimes, she would just sit there. Her mind filled with memories I could not even begin to imagine. I always joked that one day I’d photograph her, and she would always reply that that would be one photo I’d never be able to sell.

Old Mrs. Hanh’s chair is empty now. She died last winter. I never did photograph her. And you know what? I’m glad I didn’t. No photograph, no matter how good it might have been, could ever portray the struggles, personal calamities and pain she had to overcome and survive. No single photo could ever have done justice to the wonderful, courageous and kind soul that she was. Kugara zvakanaka!

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A Long Road to the Coast - Part One

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.
Kugara zvakanaka!

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.

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The Three T's of Travel Photography

 Hard at work near Long Hai on the southern coast of Vietnam.

I know that many other travel photographers would disagree with me, but I'm convinced that a great deal of success in this genera comes down to... luck. I've spent a week or so at one or other location without getting the photograph I want, only to have a tourist who's been there half an hour show me a killer shot on his cameras LCD screen. On the other hand one photograph does not make the kind of story or portfolio that most clients demand. Success is born of consistently taking good photographs. While that wonderful serendipitous moment can never be removed from the equation, some careful preparation can go a long way. Morton's first rule of travel photography is the '3T' rule... and the 'T' stands for time.

The first 'T' is for the time of year. I know that many people, be they enthusiastic amateur photographers or professionals, live lives constrained by a wide variety of commitments. There's work, there's family and of course there's the simple issue of finance. Global travel is cheaper today that it has ever been, but once you add up flights, hotels, restaurants and local travel etc. it still adds up to more than pocket change for most of us. All these things, and quite a few others, make it almost impossible for someone to just pack their bags and travel whenever the itch need scratching. This, however is exactly why the time of year you visit your destination region or country is so important. To take time away from work and family and spend that hard earned cash on a trip to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) only to arrive in the middle of the summer monsoon would be a disaster.

When you first start to plan your trip, do an online search to check out the weather conditions. This doesn't just mean is it summer or winter, but more importantly things like precipitation, hours of sunlight and cloud cover. These are the things that really matter when you're standing there with a camera in your hands. One of the best travel photographers I know was once sent by a client to Ha Long bay to photograph a cruise ship among the islands... in the middle of the winter rains! An addendum to this first point has to do with regional travel. Here in Vietnam, for example when the weather is best in the South it's terrible in the North and vice versa. If you see online advertising for a photo tour of Vietnam that offers you the whole country in ten days, don't bother reading the fine print as it'll be a waste of time. If you're planing to travel within a region pay attention to local weather conditions also.

The second 'T' is for time of day. This one is just as important, but often more difficult to plan for.  Obviously the best times for photography are usually early morning and late afternoon. On more than a few occasions I've risen long before dawn and spent an hour or two hiking through the dark to an iconic location only to find that there's a mountain to the East which blocks out all direct sunlight until eight or nine in the morning. Another common mistake is to plan to photograph some special location or building only to discover when you're there that the angle you want to shoot from is facing the rising or setting sun and you have nothing but a silhouette.

To overcome these and other similar problems local knowledge is always most helpful. There are, however, other options. The easiest is probably to do an image search on somewhere like Flickr or 500px and when you find an image that looks like the one you have in mind, simply send an in-media message asking the photographer what time of day they took the photograph... and what time of year, to avoid the trap of the first 'T'. I'm sure you'll get a few helpful responses. Some locations have their own specific time demands that need to be considered, especially buildings. The ancient and visually stunning Jade Emperor pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, for example is only worth visiting between about 11h00 and 13h00 depending on the time of year. Why? Because it's only at this time of the day the the sun is almost directly above and can enter the building through holes in the roof and lighten the windowless worship halls and their incredible altars.

Interior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Chua Ngoc Hoang) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The final 'T' is for time on location. To find, compose and take a good photograph, more often than not, requires time. You need time to explore the location, to find interesting subject material, experiment with composition and then to set up and take a great photograph. Add to this that sometimes the clouds are wrong or that you have to wait for other people to take their own snapshots and move off you will rarely have as much time as you would like at a particular place. Also working against you is the fact that you probably want to fit as much into your trip as possible. By giving one location time you are automatically denying yourself time at another. It's not easy.

It's best to admit that you probably can't shoot everything you would like to. Having said this, however, with the aid of something like Google Maps you can probably manage a lot more than most visitors. Start by prioritizing the subjects you most want to photograph and then identify the other places you'd like to photograph nearby. Plan a route that you can accomplish in a single walk or excursion. Remember that the estimated travel times provided by Google Maps are never ever going to be accurate. Always give yourself more time to move from location to location. Planing your travels this way might sound too regimented and more like hard work than pleasure, but it is the one way to ensure that you maximize the limited time you have available and come home with the best photographs you could have taken. Kugara zvakanaka!

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Here lies Ian Morton 1963-2019

I guess that I need to start somewhere. The question is really, where's a good place to start. I'm pretty sure no one is interested in my life story, so there goes fifty years of possibilities. This is a photography website, so maybe I should begin with my introduction to photography... "I was about twelve years old when my father gave me my first camera..." nah! Boring! This blog business isn't as easy as I thought it was going to be. I mean, why do people write blogs? More to the point, as I'm not a pathological narcissist, what makes me think that other people will want to wade through blog after blog of badly written English to explore the brain farts of a mediocre and relatively unknown photographer living in South East Asia? Beats me.

This, of course, is part of the reality of being a photographer in the social media age. It's no longer enough to be good at your craft and work hard. Now you need to have something called a 'social media presence'. (I'd like to meet the clown who came up with that idea in a dark alley, on a dark night and with a baseball bat in my hands.) Social Media! For me it started with facebook. Start a page, post your pictures, follow other photographers, litter the internet with positive comments, collect a sea of loyal followers and soon the whole world will be knocking at your door, I was told.

Did that. Sort of. No one knocked. Not once. My mistake, it seems. Well meaning friends explained that facebook wasn't for professionals... I needed LinkedIn. No problem. I eagerly signed up and padded my profile, blackmailed friends into becoming contacts and waited for the flood. I even moved my bed next to the front door in case I missed that first knock. I didn't miss it. It never came. Turns out it was my own fault. I wasn't on Instagram. A few clicks on the keyboard and then this problem was also solved... until I learn't about twitter. I guess that by now you can see where I'm going with all of this.

The reality is that I've been sucked down into the basement level of Dante's social media hell. I spend my days and nights feeding this hydra pathetic scraps of my professional life, praying that they will be enough to placate it's infinite appetite. All the time hoping that day by day and hour by hour I'm pushing back that terrifying moment when I will have nothing left to offer, and it will turn on me and devour me whole. Having survived wars, floods and a whole host of angry African wildlife, I can see my epitaph: "Here lies Ian Morton. 1963 - 2019. Taken from us by his keyboard." What a way to go.

So, in case you were wondering, although there's no reason why you should be, that's the reason I'm starting this blog. You see, it's a new beginning for me... or rather a return to my roots. I've spent the last twenty years photographing Vietnam for other people. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. The clients I've worked for have given me the opportunity to do what I love; to travel and take photographs. I've had a great time and made a good living. The problem has been the photographs. Trying to convince frozen Europeans to visit sunny Vietnam for their winter holidays my clients have always required a particular kind of photograph. Clear blue skies, pristine white beaches edged with the stereotypical coconut trees and a uniform variety of luxury five-star resorts. This isn't the Vietnam I know and love.

My passion is for the original Vietnam, dare I say the 'unspoiled' Vietnam? Those secluded coves, rugged mountain peaks, remote jungle villages and unvisited ancient pagodas that have not yet been assaulted by  hoards of the professionally unwashed clutching their copies of lonely planet. I want to photograph Vietnam as it has always been, a sublimely beautiful place abounding in its own unique history and culture. It's still here, almost everywhere hidden in plain sight, if you know where to look. This is what I want to explore and document, before it too is washed away by the rising tide of bland globalization. Fortunately for me, I now find myself at a place where a can do just this. To revisit all the amazing places I've discovered over the last twenty years, and to photograph them the way I want to.

I'm turning my back on all the things I've been told that I should do to succeed as a photographer. I'm no longer going to worry about how many 'likes' I have on facebook or Instagram. I'm just going to travel and take the photographs that I want to take. With this bimonthly rambling of poorly chosen adjectives and mixed metaphor's I'll share with anyone who might be interested where I am and what I'm doing. This little blog is it. My sole contribution to satisfying the infinite greed of the www vampire that lives beyond my keyboard. Ahh! The feeling of freedom just writing that gives me. It's almost as if the adventure has begun before I take a step out of the door. Maybe I chose the wrong title for this first blog. Possibly it should have been "Here goes Ian Morton 2019 - ?"  Kugara zvakanaka! 


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