Lonely Planet author and friend Tom Downs recently said to me that pretty much any time you see old photos of a place, you see what the place was like 20 or more years before that. In other words, we — as traveling documentarians, either by writing or camera — tend to focus on what’s already old, nostalgic. For example, while studying Russian in Moscow and St Petersburg during the ‘first summer of Russia’ (1992), instead of photographing grandmothers holding up toothbrushes for sale outside a metro stop — as the Russians first clumsily toyed with free market — I photographed onion-domed churches and Kremlin walls that haven’t, and won’t, change for decades. My friend Matthew Jesse Jackson, of Chicago University (and more distantly, Alabama), once said, ‘Pretty much any newspaper clip you ever save ends up more interesting on what’s on the back side.’
Most conversations I have in Vietnam tend to end in a local or expat observation like ‘things have changed so much’ or ‘I bet you can’t recognize it’ (I lived here 10 years ago) or ‘every day there’s something new… it’s like a whole new city.’ Generally I find more what hasn’t changed — the unwieldly power cables blocking balcony views and congregating at concrete tower poles at intersections; how you hear the approach of a waiter by their sandal soles dragging on the pavement; if you stop to write a note on the street you have an onlooker or two unshyly looking over your shoulder at every word; the same decayed French colonial buildings line many streets; many motorcycle taxi guys think if they ask you four times for a ride you’ll finally relent; the food’s still much better than any Vietnamese restaurant outside the country; on hot days guys walk around with shirt pulled up into ‘half shirts’; simple concrete red/white markers mark the distances between cities on one side of the road; people still eat on tiny sidewalk plastic stools; many transport overloaded doses of mirrors, bamboo baskets or live pigs on a motorcycle; many bicyclists pedal while sitting on the back bumper rather than up on the seats; the non la (conical hat) is everywhere; farmers work by hand; and many more.
Some things have changed too. Mini hotels are more comfortable, new office buildings look like skyscrapers in Danang, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Importantly to travelers, most cross-country ‘open buses’ that ply the improved highways — but generally still overwhelmed by large vehicles and little ones — are much better than the pile-in, smoke-spewing mammoths from a decade ago. And who gets on them has changed — in the form of a novel, recent phenomenon: the Vietnamese tourist. They’re every where. The ‘open bus’ that you can hop on/off from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City was once 98% foreigners, now it’s mostly locals (on most buses I’ve been on anyway). Take a group tour — to a cave, a tomb, a pagoda — and guides are sometimes required to say everything in English and Vietnamese. This is new.
Most Vietnamese tourists go on group tours — to Halong Bay, to Sapa, from top-to-bottom on big-bus tours. Not all. My favorite Vietnamese tourist I’ve met so far — an architect of ‘New Sagion,’ wearing a foldable ‘outback’ hat, with the faintly Mick Jagger-1965 longish hair you see on some of the more interesting guys in their late ’40s or early ’50s — sat next to me on my bus to Danang. His family went to France for a holiday, but he flew to Hue and was spending ’12 days to get back to Saigon.’ On his own. I didn’t realize he spoke English until we saw the aftermath of an injury-free accident. ‘Accident here. Motorbike fell,’ he said suddenly. ‘Anyone hurt?,’ I wondered. ‘I don’t think so.’
Van is spending a day or two in places in Vietnam’s southern half– perhaps by design, perhaps not, but his English skills (and fact he didn’t leave country for vacation) makes me wonder if he’s a South Vietnam veteran; I didn’t ask — to photograph with the massive camera he held. He pointed out a place — near Lang Co pass — where he had gone two days before. ‘I stayed in that guesthouse and woke up for sunrise to watch the fishermen come home. Let me show you.’ He brought out a huge camera and flipped through shots of pink hues of the early sun making a black outline of wee fishing boats. ‘Beautiful, yes?’ He doesn’t want to sell them, though he easily could. ‘It’s just my hobby.’ He’s very good at it. Pulling into Danang, he pointed out women fish sellers setting up along the waterfront. ‘This is where to get seafood. Very cheap and very fresh.’ He’s been there before too.
I got out at Danang and he headed farther south. I forgot to ask him for his contact info.