Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

Red River brick factories (II)

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Drive north out of Hanoi over Thang Long bridge, turn left and follow the dyke road for a couple of miles, and you’ll come to a cluster of brick factories on the banks of the Red River. Last autumn, following the advice of a friend who knows that side of the river well, I made a few trips to this location, and began to try to document what I saw.

There are about a dozen factories at this site, separated by rows and rows of bricks, countless bricks drying in the sun. The pictures I took there combine some of my favourite things in photography: strong colours, especially the earthy tones of the bricks and the land, geometric patterns and, most importantly for me, the human element, people in their environment, leading their everyday lives, in this case, the tough, repetitive labour of producing staggering quantities of bricks in the autumn heat. My aim with these pictures is to show the reality of that demanding work without romanticising it, and without dehumanising the men and women who work there.

Last month, as I mentioned in my previous post, some of my pictures from this project were published in Word magazine here in Vietnam. In this post, I’m sharing some of the photographs from the series that didn’t make it into print.

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Red River brick factories (in Word magazine)

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I’m very happy to see some of my pictures in print this month. Word magazine has published some of my photographs of the brick factories on the Red River, just outside Hanoi. I’ll post some more pictures from this series soon, and write a little more about the location, which I got a little obsessed with back in the autumn, but in the meantime, here are the pages from the magazine. I enjoy sharing my pictures here on the blog, but there’s definitely something special about being in print. I’ll have to make sure it happens more often…

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Ha Giang, Ha Giang

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Most visitors to Ha Giang province don’t hang around for too long in Ha Giang City; it makes a convenient start and end point of a trip through the mountains that overlook the city and stretch throughout the region, but is not really a destination in itself. The city is far from being the most spectacular sight in the province, but it’s quite appealing in a low-key way. After I’d finished my four-day bike trip through the mountains, I found myself back in Ha Giang City. I didn’t feel like going straight back to Hanoi, so I spent an extra day in town, wandering about, drinking coffee, eating pho cuon, thinking back on the trip, and taking a few pictures.

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Looping the loop (day 4 in Ha Giang)

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For most of this trip to Ha Giang province, in the mountains of northern Vietnam, I was concentrating on taking landscape pictures, something I don’t do that often. It was a nice change of pace for me; when I’m shooting portraits or street scenes in Hanoi, I’ll often take a lot of pictures of the same person or scene, hoping to find the right expression, angle or moment. Landscape photography is a slower, more considered process, and requires a different mindset. I should do more of it. But there’s more to Ha Giang than landscapes. Early in the morning of my last day on the road, I visited the tiny market village of Du Tien, near Du Gia, and had the chance to shift gears and go back to taking people pictures. I always enjoy wandering around markets in Vietnam, and elsewhere in south-east Asia, and I wish I’d taken in more on this trip. This market was mostly made up of stalls selling clothes, fabric and household goods, and was populated by people from a number of different ethnic minority groups.

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After leaving the market, we embarked on the final leg of the journey, from Du Gia back to Ha Giang City. The low cloud of the morning gave way to hazy sunshine as the day progressed.

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I remember approaching Ha Giang City again, the loop almost complete, watching the distance to our final destination gradually counting down on the roadsigns, and wishing that this wasn’t the end and that the journey could continue for longer. I was feeling nostalgic about the trip, and it wasn’t even over yet. As I mentioned in the first of these Ha Giang posts, I’d wanted to visit this beautiful province for years; I’m so glad I finally made it up there, and am looking forward to a return visit in the spring.

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Borderland (day 3 in Ha Giang)

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My third day in Ha Giang province, and we spent the morning driving from Dong Van to Lung Cu and back. Lung Cu is the northernmost point of Vietnam and is best known for its mountain-top flag tower, a none too subtle symbol of national pride just a few kilometers from the border with China. The morning was cloudy but dry, so for the first time on this trip I was able to put aside my waterproof poncho and non-matching plastic over-trousers (not pictured). The sun came and went, sometimes peeking through the cloud, changing the colours of the rice terraces and mountainsides along the route.

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On returning from Lung Cu, there was time for a quick lunch in Dong Van before hitting the road again in the afternoon. Next time I visit Ha Giang, I’ll spend a little longer in Dong Van, two nights rather than one, and try to be there for the Sunday market. The town has a strong Chinese flavour (unsurprising, given its location close to the border) and reminded me of Yuanyang in Yunnan province, which I visited back in 2013.

After lunch back in the town, we set off for Du Gia, via the Ma Pi Leng pass. This high-altitude mountain road follows the Nho Que river from Dong Van to Meo Vac. Many people say it’s the most beautiful spot in all of Vietnam, and I’m not going to argue. It’s fully deserving of every superlative you can throw its way – truly stunning, awe-inspiring, breath-taking. Having just heard, the previous day, the result of the U.S. election, I needed this reminder that there is plenty of goodness in the world. I began to entertain thoughts of waiting out the next four years up in the mountains of Ha Giang, and leaving the rest of the world to it.

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Late in the afternoon, the road went higher and the cloud came lower. The heavy mist and black, volcanic rock, along with the mostly empty road, made for an eerie, unearthly atmosphere. I wish I’d taken more pictures along this stretch, but we were keen to reach our destination before it got dark, and time was against us. But it’s good sometimes to leave some pictures untaken. I have those images in my head still, and I can try to get them on camera another time.

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That’s all from me for 2016. Thank you to everyone who’s been following the blog, and best wishes for the new year.

Just below the clouds (day 2 in Ha Giang)

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Day 2 in Ha Giang, and the weather improved markedly. The clouds lifted a little, and the rain was more drizzle than deluge. Just as importantly, I was able to keep my feet warm and dry through the expedient of wearing plastic bags inside my trainers (a technique I first employed at the Reading festival in 1992). It’s not a great look, but I’m perfectly happy to sacrifice a little dignity in exchange for warm feet.

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On the first day, it felt for most of the time as if we were driving through the cloud, but as we drove from Quan Ba to Dong Van on day 2, we were just below it. This made all the difference. I could actually see the beautiful rocky landscape around me. I think the combination of the dark green of the wet vegetation and the grey/white of the sky makes for some quite dramatic pictures.

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The conditions weren’t ideal for landscape photography, I suppose, but I’m not really an expert in this genre. I’m not very technical when it comes to this kind of shooting – I didn’t use a tripod or an ND filter, and don’t have a clue about hyperfocal distances and so on. I’m very much of the “f/11 and shoot” school. But I think it’s hard to take a bad photograph in Ha Giang, as the surroundings are so spectacular. One of the things I remember most about this trip is the sensation of the landscape unfolding in front of me as I drove through the mountain roads, revealing one glorious scene after another.

 

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The long and winding road

Late in the afternoon, we reached the village of Sa Phin, and visited the palace of the Hmong kings. This was the home of the Hmong rulers of the province in the early 20th century.

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Public transport, Ha Giang style

This last picture, taken just outside Dong Van towards the end of the day, is probably my favourite from the entire trip. I think it has a kind of “end of the Earth” look, with the last few rice terraces clinging to the hillside, before the gentle slopes give way to the jagged limestone peaks beyond.

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Heaven’s Gate in the rain (day 1 in Ha Giang)

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I finally made it up to Ha Giang. I’ve been wanting to go to this part of northern Vietnam for years, but always found a reason, or made an excuse, not to. Ha Giang is Vietnam’s northernmost province, on the border with China, and is home to twisting mountain passes, otherworldly limestone cliffs (or karsts), barren rocky plateaus and lush green rice terraces. The best way to travel through this province is by motorbike and, while I am happy driving my Honda Wave through the chaotic traffic of Hanoi, I’d always been wary about taking on the mountain roads of Ha Giang. But, finally, I spent a few days there at the beginning of last month,  driving through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. I spent half of my time thinking, “I should have done this years ago.”

Early November isn’t the best time to visit the province. The rice harvest is pretty much over and the weather, as I soon found out, is especially unpredictable. On the first day, we drove from Ha Giang City to Quan Ba. Unfortunately, the weather was very much against us. Persistent, heavy rain made driving difficult and the views, not to mention the road ahead, almost invisible. Most of my attention was focused on keeping my motorbike upright, avoiding the numerous potholes in the road and negotiating slippery hairpin bends. My impractical, lightweight trainers were soaked through within minutes of leaving Ha Giang City, so my feet were frozen. Rain had been forecast, but I was expecting drizzle, the occasional shower, not this relentless downpour. I’d like to say that I kept my spirits up and remained optimistic about the rest of the trip, but in reality, I got very grumpy and felt like going home.

As we approached Tam Son town, the sky cleared very slightly, and I was able to take this one half-decent photograph. This mountain pass is known as Heaven’s Gate; the view is undoubtedly impressive, and is one of the iconic images of the region. But the light, on this day, was flat and uninspiring. It’s not the best picture I’ve ever taken, but it does provide an accurate record of the day. Fortunately, the weather, my mood and the photographs improved over the next few days, as I hope you’ll see over my next couple of posts.

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You are cordially invited to join me on Instagram, where I’m re-posting my favourite pictures from the last five years, one per day, in no particular order.

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