Getting Lost on Purpose: Photography in Vietnam
Tra Vinh, Vietnam is a tucked away town in the Mekong Delta casually mentioned but not even listed as an off the beaten track stop by the popular travel guide.
I was looking forward to visiting this secluded area which is too far from Saigon for the hordes of daytripping package tourists to reach.
The area of Tra Vinh used to belong to Cambodia and is home of Khmer minorities who are unfortunately second class citizens in Vietnam. There also 140 some Khmer pagodas throughout the province.
Tra Vinh is a great place to rent a bicycle or motorbike to ride through rice fields and explore life in the tourist-free rural Vietnam.
I had one of my most enjoyable bike rides a few miles east of Tra Vinh by the way of leaving the main road and just getting lost. The winding path took me through picturesque rice fields and dirt roads used by locals only witnessing as authentic living conditions as I ever will.
The experience was so peaceful and enjoyable I did not even take a photo; I decided not to be distracted by camera settings and spend any energy to attempt the impossible task of capturing what was around me.
In and outside town the looks of locals are reminiscent of other non touristy places like Soc Trang and Bac Lieu.
Some people were greeting me with the usual loud and enthusiastic Hello, some had that very funny witnessing-a-spaceship-landing-kind of completely bewildered look.
During my 7 days of stay I spotted 2 tourists, another foreigner in a suit and tie (meaning he worked in Tra Vinh) and ran into a university student/volunteer teacher at a Khmer pagoda.
It is an addicting side effect of being a visitor in non-touristy parts of Vietnam that everywhere I go in public “my appearance” becomes an event which attracts groups or crowds of various sizes.
99% of my meals are not from restaurants, actually I try to pick the most unassuming roadside eateries where I presume the least amount if any tourist ever visited. I did the same in Tra Vinh.
Recently I read a funny phrase that describes this way of eating as “hygienically adventurous”.
I love the fact that during the past six and a half months in Asia I have not shared a roadside eatery with another tourist (exceptions are my hotels’ restaurants a handful of times).
While I was eating my meals in Tra Vinh all eyes were on me non stop. As soon as I made eye contact with someone they usually look away, it is a fact that no Vietnamese ever won a staring match against a foreigner.
Their curiously and shyness is too funny.
Marriage proposals and offers to be fixed up are part of the experience of being in these eateries. The usual questions precede the dating game: what is your name? where are you from? how old are you? are you single?
Being single and childless at age 40 is met by complete disbelief.
Almost all relationship offers are referrals meaning very few women would show interest directly, it is usually someone they know that would make a great partner. When it happens it can get creepy as it is most likely coming from a working woman or a scammer.
The same shyness applies with having photos taken. Vietnamese people are most eager and willing to volunteer their friends and family for photos but seldom themselves (it does happen though).
Buddhist monks are not allowed to ride bicycles so during the morning hours they walk or take motorbikes to gather food donations from the neighborhood:
An attempt at creating an exotic composition by shooting through leaves of a tree on the grounds of a pagoda:
Monks especially who do not speak English are quite shy and a candid photo is more likely to result from a trip to a pagoda than a formal portrait:
I went to several Khmer pagodas around Tra Vinh which were reachable on a bicycle. There are some similarities and some differences in each which make every visit special.
Of course Buddha statues are mandatory photography subjects:
A pink Buddha head was a strange visual on the gate of a pagoda which I stumbled upon.
I was told by a Cambodian monk that some of the more unusual colors are dictated by the Vietnamese authorities. Khmer monks and Khmer minorities being the poorest and least educated in this region have no other options but comply:
I love these statues which are right underneath pagodas’ roofs seemingly supporting them. They come in different colors, shapes and sizes with completely different heads varying from human to animal:
This closeup is part of a magnificent golden wall which stretched at least 100 feet or more from the street entrance to way inside the pagoda:
What the monk on the left is pointing at is the year 1967 carved above the entrance which I told him happens to be my birth year. The rest of the pagoda is several centuries old:
Statues of The Buddha achieving nirvana in the laying position are my favorite findings in pagodas:
I believe the metal object is a bell which is being rung to signal prayer or meal time or both.
As I was moving around on the grounds of the pagoda I kept looking for more interesting angles. I always take my time which I have plenty of as shy monks hardly ever approach.
In this photo “stacking” the bell in the extreme foreground, the monk walking by as he was doing his chores and the perspective of the monks’ living quarters resulted in a decent composition which tells a story about what I saw:
Pagodas often have statues depicting stories about The Buddha. Due to the limited English knowledge of most monks and my lack of knowledge of Buddhism I learn few details but it is still a special experience:
In this pagoda I was lucky to find the story in English.
“The three daughters of king of evil (Mara)” tried to solace and fascinate The Buddha. But their endeavour was in vain”:
The baby Buddha taking seven steps on seven lotus flowers after being born scene is quite “famous” as I have seen paintings of it in every pagoda:
“On the full moon day of Vesak month 625 B.C. The Buddha was born in Lumbini Park. Immediately after being born he walked for seven steps and there was a lotus holding him up at every step. He said he was the most exalted One in the World”:
As I was approaching a pagoda I found in my guidebook I spotted kids in a small muddy pond. Turned out they were “fishing” for snails, fishes whatever else they could see or find with their toes:
Some of the catch of the day:
A bird’s eye view of the ingredients of tonight’s dinner:
The father is showing me two small fishes which he was particularly proud of. He also signaled to me that the green leaves in the basket are delicious spices:
I saw some kids playing hide and seek from my bicycle and I stopped to watch them. After a few minutes we took some photos.
Tra Vinh being off the beaten track this was not an everyday event for them so there was a lot of giggling first:
The more serious version:
Tra Vinh is the place where my rambutan (chom chom) addiction surfaced and hit an all time high so much so that the huge amount of rambutan peels in the trash was noted by the cleaning staff of the hotel.
If the Vietnamese people weren’t so shy and reserved no doubt there would have been a rambutan intervention.
I prefer rambutan to lychee not just price wise but taste wise as well.
Getting one’s daily fix is a breeze, unless purchasing chom chom at a tourist trap, it is cheap and can be bought at countless street dealers: