Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

Posts tagged ‘ha giang’

Yen Minh rice farmer

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One more picture from Ha Giang province. This was taken in a rice field just behind the main street of Yen Minh town. I was going to include it in my recent Urban Ha Giang post, but it didn’t really fit, so I’m posting it here on its own.

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Butchers of Ha Giang City

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Ha Giang City was the start and end point of my motorbike trip through the province of the same name in April/May this year. The city wouldn’t be at the top of anyone’s list as a destination in itself, but on both of my visits, I’ve enjoyed a final motorbike-free day wandering around the city, ruminating on the trip just completed. As I mentioned in my previous post, I think that the urban side of this largely rural, mountainous province is sometimes overlooked, so I thought I’d share a few pictures from the city, specifically the market. I┬ácan never resist a good market, as you may have noticed.

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Urban Ha Giang

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Most of the pictures we see from Vietnam’s Ha Giang province focus on rural life: landscapes, markets, villages, people from ethnic minorities in traditional costume. Nothing wrong with that, of course; I’ve taken plenty of those pictures myself, and posted them here.

But what about the urban life of the province? Dong Van, Meo Vac, Yen Minh and Ha Giang City may not be the most vibrant locations – nobody goes there for the nightlife – but there’s plenty of interest in the everyday life of these unassuming, low key towns. Travelling through the province in the autumn of last year and the spring of this, I became fascinated by urban Ha Giang: the banh cuon joints, the cafes and tea stands, the meat and vegetable markets, the games of checkers and volleyball, the windows and doorways, all the little things that make up the lives of these highland towns.

I think these towns are more than just places to spend the night before speeding off on the next leg of the loop. They are surrounded by mountains and karsts but, overlooked by breathtaking scenery, daily life goes on as normal. I suppose even the most beautiful surroundings can become mundane if you see them every day.

Of course, you can’t completely ignore the rural element in this part of the country, even in the towns. There’s no dividing line; the rural and the urban blend into each other. Walking down the streets of Dong Van or Yen Minh, you can catch glimpses of the surrounding countryside through gaps between the buildings where houses are being knocked down or built up. Dong Van is a town surrounded by mountains and sheltering a basin of rice fields. People from Vietnam’s numerous ethnic minorities are in the majority here.

These pictures were all taken in Dong Van, Meo Vac, Yen Minh and Ha Giang in April and May of this year.

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Meo Vac market (part 3)

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This final set of pictures from Meo Vac market focuses on another aspect of this hectic, sprawling weekly gathering in the mountains of northern Vietnam: clothes and shoes. Just inside the covered area of the market, seamstresses and seamsters (if that’s a word) hunched over old pedal-operated sewing machines, making clothes to order from material bought at stalls nearby. Elsewhere, shoppers haggled over traditional skirts, knock-off jeans and plastic shoes.

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Meo Vac market (part 2)

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While cows and pigs are being traded outside under the early morning sun, the inside area of Meo Vac market is full of activity of a different kind. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Sunday market gets going very early in the morning; this means that there are hundreds of people all needing breakfast. The centre of the market is a huge covered area, much of it taken up by dozens of kitchens where traders and customers take a break from market business to enjoy a bowl of noodles.

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While live animals are bought and sold outside, there is freshly butchered meat available inside.

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Meo Vac market (part 1)

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One of the things I most wanted to do on this last trip to Ha Giang was to visit the Sunday morning market in Meo Vac. I planned the whole trip so that I would reach Meo Vac on a Saturday afternoon, and be ready for an early start the next day. Even though I got to the market before six, it was already busy, as numerous villagers arrived in town, some by truck, some by motorbike and some on foot, but all with goods to sell.

There are countless regular markets throughout the province. Some are weekly while some, confusingly, are held every six days. Some are in large-ish towns like Meo Vac or Dong Van, some in tiny villages. These markets are an essential part of life in Ha Giang. They’re where town and country meet, as farmers from different villages and ethnic groups gather together to trade with each other and the people of the towns. It’s not all business of course – the market has an important social function, and there was plenty of gossiping, flirting and boozing going on too.

This market was chaotic, crowded, smelly, utterly engrossing and a little overwhelming. In photography terms, it was a complete change of pace from the preceding few days, when I’d been mainly photographing landscapes. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people and animals, by rapid movement and fleeting moments. There were potential pictures everywhere, and there were times when it was difficult to know where to turn. For the most part, the market people were far too busy going about their business to concern themselves with the tall, clumsy photographer in their midst. I decided to shoot in more of a documentary style – mostly up close with wide angles, observing and recording rather than interacting, though I did occasionally engage with people for a few of my customary portraits.

Meo Vac market is mainly known as a livestock market, and there were plenty of worried looking cows, pigs and chickens changing hands. There was a lot more going on besides – with meat, fabric, clothes, shoes, household goods, moonshine, and all sorts of other things also being bought and sold – but all that will have to wait until a later post, as this series is all about the animals.

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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.