I spent a few weeks in September of last year traveling throughout northern Vietnam, taking pictures and getting to explore a country that has long been on my bucket list. I flew out of Toronto and through Taipai (about 16 hours airtime) before landing in Hanoi to spend a few days getting prepped before I headed further north. I was not at all prepared for how the heat and humidity were going to hit me that first day there – listen when people tell you to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated. Because after nearly 16 hours on planes in the past day, I was more than a little bit dried out and sleep-deprived. That first day almost took me down after just an hour outside.
After some rest, recovery, and a few liters of water, I found that getting my camera out and wandering was the cure-all it usually is. I hit the city’s old quarter to do some portraiture and street photography – wandering around these busy streets was some of the most fun I had in Hanoi – watching vendors selling from storefronts, curbside stalls, & bicycles, the smells of smoke and cooking meat wafting down the streets, and the shade of giant trees and narrow alleyways giving a respite from the heat and the bustle of commerce for both the residents who congregated in them and myself.
Other highlights of my brief stay in Hanoi included a visit to the Temple of Literature as well as a chance to photograph the residents of and visitors to Train Street – where a few times a day trains speed down this residential street, within mere feet or in some cases inches of clearance between building and pedestrians.
Later that night, I had a chance to experience train street from another point of view – as a passenger on an overnight train to Lao Cai. This was a fun experience, although I didn’t get much actual sleep as I’ve realized that sleeper cars aren’t really designed with the very tall in mind, so I spent a good part of the night with either my feet propped up on a wall to make myself fit while I read, or precariously balanced on the edge of the berth in the fetal position.
Another night of sleep deprivation was worth it, however, because there were so many sights to see on this leg of the trip. From looking out to the window as we sped down Train Street watching the nightlife in the roadside cafes and bars, to seeing the sun come up over foggy lakes and fields as we entered the far north of the country. I remember opening the curtains and looking out the window at one point in the very early morning and feeling like the world had turned black and white overnight, as the heavy fog gave everything a monochromatic vibe that was only sometimes broken by the colorful signs and towns that became more prevalent as we approached our destination of Lao Cai.
After a great breakfast (the first bowl of Pho I got to eat in Vietnam), I paid a quick visit to the border between Lao Cai and Hekou, China, as well as the Den Mau temple which sits within view of both the border crossing as well as the Red River. From there, the next destination was Bac Ha – which would be where I would lodge for the evening.
After checking into the hotel, we headed to the nearby Can Cau market to spend the afternoon shooting many of the vendors and patrons, It was here that tragedy struck when my camera took a fall and tumbled to a rocky demise as it bounced down the stone path a few times. The lens tore entirely off of its own mount and busted up the body as well. It looked like I would be spending the rest of my trip shooting with a single backup body I was loaned (Thanks Robin!) and a single lens (which actually turned out to be a really great experience in the end, as being severely limited in what gear I had access to really led to a bunch of interesting creative choices and improvisations in the coming days)
Can Cau was my first taste of this sort of tightly packed local market. I loved wandering around the stalls that specialized in goods ranging from dried chiles and fermented sauces to fruit, corn whiskey, clothing, toiletries, fish, and meat (not to mention the pots of bubbling soups that reduced and become more intense as the days selling, drinking, and socializing went on) These gatherings were something I got very fond of in the coming days as I visited other markets throughout the region.
Once we returned to Bac Ha in the afternoon, it was time for a brief break and then a long walk up into the hills to visit homes and farms along the way, making a large circuit around the valley before returning to the main town for dinner. We met farmers prepping pigs for market the next day, people distilling corn whiskey, and people slaughtering chickens for that night’s dinner, along with construction workers, children, and farmers loading their day’s harvests onto trucks and motorcycles as their days came to an end.
The next day I awoke early to visit the central market at Bac Ha, a weekly event that seemed to go on forever as it wound through the streets and plazas of the town, each area dedicated to a different type of ware. We started in a small side market that was selling fresh, dried, and preserved produce of all types, as well as hosting a variety of stalls where barbers were plying their trade and giving haircuts in the early morning sun. From there, we moved across a large bridge to the livestock market where huge crowds were buying, selling, and grading various water buffalo. The crowding here was intense, as both patrons and animals worked to push through the masses, it wasn’t unusual to see someone hop up out of the crowd and onto the elevated platforms around the loading bays to escape the throng and get a better view of the animals. I even found myself scrambling up on these ledges and walls for respite on occasion or to navigate around a particular ornery animal. As we left the livestock area, we saw even more animals being loaded off of trucks or being walked to the fair as we started to enter the mid-morning hours.
Next, we paid a visit to one of the small local restaurants surrounding the market for more Pho, and wrapped up our morning of exploring with a final walk through the market’s fish and meat areas – where people were busily haggling for various live fish, cuts of pork, organs, chicken, tripe, and whatever else may have struck their fancy from the stalls that morning.
That wraps up my retelling of the first leg of this amazing trip! I’ll be back soon to share part two of this adventure that takes a look at my visits to the Topas Valley, and Punahou Village and Meo Vac!