Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

Going slow on the Ma Pi Leng pass


It’s only about 25km from Dong Van to Meo Vac, but if you’re like me it can take hours to drive, because you have to keep stopping to take more photographs. This stretch of road, the Ma Pi Leng pass, is widely considered the most awe-inspiring in northern Vietnam, and that’s against some pretty stiff competition. I promised myself that I would drive past the merely beautiful and only stop for the breathtaking, but I still seemed to be stopping the bike every couple of minutes to take pictures.

It was difficult to get the balance right on this trip. Obviously, I wanted to come back from Ha Giang with photographs I could be proud of, but I also wanted to enjoy the experience of simply being there. It’s all too easy to see everything through a lens, to spend too much time thinking about photography and not appreciate the experience while it’s actually happening. There’s a time for stopping to take pictures, and a time for savouring the thrill of motorbiking through these wonderfully twisty mountain roads.

I was definitely guilty of over-shooting on this trip – I came back with lots of very similar photographs. It’s a habit I’ve got into as a result of taking a lot of portraits, I think. When photographing people, I’ll often take many shots of the same person, shooting from different angles, trying to capture different expressions and gestures before the moment is lost. A landscape isn’t going to go anywhere or change the look on its face, so I could probably have adopted a slower, more considered approach. Changes in the light and weather can of course have an effect on the look of a landscape picture, but these tend to happen slowly, not like the fleeting looks that pass across a person’s face. On this drive along the Ma Pi Leng pass, there were many changes on the weather, the clouds falling like a frown, before the sun broke through like a smile.
















2 Responses to “Going slow on the Ma Pi Leng pass”

  1. Alison and Don

    More wonderful photographs Jon. It’s a part of the world I’ve long wanted to explore and it’s unlikely now that I will so it’s a treat to come along on this journey with you.

  2. bluebrightly

    I’m jealous – I’d love to see Vietnam. Haven’t been anywhere in Asia, and it’s one of the top two or so on my list. Your comments on photography and travel are well-taken. Beautiful vs. breath-taking – good choices but you do have to get where you’re going…eventually…
    These hills are impossibly scenic, and the people’s faces are, too…I like seeing the exposed rock. The deep, deep cleft with the little village…wonderful.


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