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.
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.