Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

Going slow on the Ma Pi Leng pass

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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.

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North of north

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Driving from Yen Minh to Dong Van, a distance of about 50km, you find yourself surrounded by a landscape that is harsher and rockier than the farmland around Ha Giang City and Tam Son. There’s great variety to the surroundings in this part of northern Vietnam – steep, barren hillsides abruptly give way to green valley floors.

Despite the rough terrain, there is still plenty of agricultural land in this area. When I visited in late April / early May, some of the rice terraces were green and flooded, while some were newly planted, so were dry, brown and earthy.

At the highest point of the journey, before the descent into Dong Van town, the landscape becomes more jagged and inhospitable, but no less beautiful, as dark volcanic rock looms over the road and countless limestone karsts recede into the distance.

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From Dong Van, many visitors make the trip up to Lung Cu. Sometimes referred to as Vietnam’s north pole, this is the northernmost part of the north. Roadside signs remind drivers that they are in the “frontier area” between Vietnam and China. Lung Cu’s flag tower, a popular destination for domestic tourists, provides almost aerial views of the surrounding countryside. The road to Lung Cu passes throuth a few other small villages, such as Ma Le, as well as some isolated single dwellings, clinging to the hillside in improbable places.

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These last two pictures are of the same scene but taken at different focal lengths. I wouldn’t normally post two such similar pictures, but I just can’t decide which one I prefer.

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Banh cuon ladies of Ha Giang

banh-cuon-ladiesThis is my quick photographic tribute to the splendid banh cuon ladies of Ha Giang province. These four women provided me with breakfast in (clockwise from top left) Meo Vac, Dong Van, Yen Minh and Ha Giang City.

Banh cuon (apologies for the lack of the proper Vietnamese tone markings) is a popular breakfast / lunch dish in the north of Vietnam. Rolled rice noodles are filled with minced pork and mushrooms, and served with a vinegary fish sauce broth and Vietamese sausage (cha). It’s easy to find in Hanoi, but for some reason I rarely eat it there, tending to go for pho, bun cha or xoi for lunch. But up in Ha Giang, I had banh cuon for breakfast nearly every day. As well as providing great food, these tiny, dim, steamy eateries are good places to kickstart a day’s photography.

Heaven’s Gate under the sun

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A few weeks ago, I made my second visit to Ha Giang, the mountainous province in the far north of Vietnam, and spent a fantastic few days motorbiking through the region’s spectacular scenery. This was a slightly longer version of the trip I made in November; I wanted to give myself plenty of time for numerous photography stops, and to enjoy the drive without rushing.

The pictures in this post were taken on the first and last legs of the trip, between Ha Giang City and Yen Minh, taking in Quan Ba district and the mountain pass known as Heaven’s Gate. On my first trip, this whole stretch was obscured by clouds and rain, but fortunately the spring weather was much kinder, and I was able to see – and photograph – a lot more this time round. The green valleys and rice terraces of this part of the region are punctuated by limestone karsts, bizarre conical rocky growths that wouldn’t look out of place in a Lord of the Rings film, while towns and villages huddle in the plateaus and cling to the hillsides.

More pictures from Ha Giang coming soon.

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View of Tam Son town and the mountains known as the ‘Fairy Bosom’

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A good spot for a selfie

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Firewood in Nam Dam village

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Traffic

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Red River brick factories (III)

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These crumbling, dusty, ramshackle brick factories just outside Hanoi were one of my favourite photography destinations last year. As well as the striking colours and patterns, I hope that these pictures convey something of the resilience of the factory workers, and the fine balance between disorder and routine. I keep meaning to go back and shoot some more there. In the absence of new new pictures, here are some new old pictures from last autumn, which I had intended to post these a couple of months ago, only for them to slip through the net somehow.

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Flying the flag in Ha Giang City

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I’ve just come back from a week and a bit in the extraordinary Ha Giang province in the far north of Vietnam. This visit, my second, coincided with a holiday weekend, as Vietnam celebrated both Liberation Day (marking the anniversary of the liberation / fall of Saigon in 1975) and International Labour Day, meaning that streets and houses throughout the region were bedecked with flags. The picture above was taken in the late afternoon one day last week in Ha Giang City. These kids of course couldn’t care less about a war that was over before even their parents were born, and were just happy to be out on their bikes with their friends while the sun was shining. At this point, I could draw some clumsy parallel between Liberation Day and my own circumstances, since I am currently taking some long-term leave from my teaching job in Hanoi. There’s certainly nothing quite like riding a motorbike through the mountain roads of northern Vietnam to make a person feel free. I’m planning to go on more travels and take more photographs over the next couple of months. More pictures from Ha Giang province soon (or soon-ish – it will take me a while to go through all the pictures I took on this trip, but it’s a task I’m looking forward to).

Also while I was away, one of my recent posts from Bangkok was featured on WordPress’s Discover page. It’s always nice when my pictures get some extra attention, so thank you to the good people of WordPress, and welcome to those of you who are new to the blog.

April wanderings

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Sometimes when I take pictures, I have a particular project in mind, maybe a specific location or neighbourhood or a particular style of photograph. Other times, I just wander about randomly and take pictures of what or who I see. Recently, I’ve been doing the latter. I don’t think either approach is better or worse than the other; they’re both just a reflection of how I’m feeling at the time, how focused – or not – my mind is. So these are some pictures I’ve taken on the streets in Hanoi over the last month; no overall theme or story here, though I think some of them fit together quite nicely in twos or threes.

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Bangkok miscellany

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A collection of portraits, street scenes and details from my visit to Bangkok at the start of the year.

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Lunar new year decorations

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Wat Arun, my favourite temple in Bangkok

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Beware of falling elephants

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Chinatown

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Thailand is in a one year period of mourning for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last year

Metal and charms in Bangkok

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Back in January of this year, I spent a few days in Bangkok. It was the Tet holiday, or lunar new year, here in Vietnam, which is always a good time to leave Hanoi in search of warmer weather. In Bangkok, I met up with my dad, who was visiting from the UK for a few days, having just been on holiday in Myanmar. We spent an agreeable few days being tourists, visiting the obligatory temples and treating ourselves to Thai cuisine. After Dad went back home, I had a few more days to wander around by myself.

One of my favourite parts of Bangkok is its Chinatown, the network of streets around Thanon Yaowaraat, where these pictures were taken. At the south-east end of Thanon Yaowarat, near Wat Traimit, there are a few streets of hardware stores, selling metal pipes, rods, tubes, girders and sprockets (probably). I always enjoy taking pictures in streets like this; I like the patterns. Not far away, there’s a streetside amulet market, where you can buy lucky charms and talismans. I think that these traders have been relocated from their old market near the Grand Palace.

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