Thursday, March 27, 2014

Vietnam - January 2014 - #1

In Vietnam -as in all the East- life is on the street. Steve McCurry, globally known photographer author of a famous portrait of a green eyed afghan girl, put it beautifully: 'In the secular West, where nothing is sacred, everything seems hidden; yet in Asia, where nothing is hidden, everything is sacred'.
I spent hours photographing from the street the interior of homes and people smiled and seemed happy about it.  Vietnamese folks eat, chat, get a haircut or place some tables on the street to have friends for dinner. And it works wonderfully.
I was specially shocked by the usual lack of chairs, tables or couches. It's because life is not only in the street, it's also on the floor. Since life is done sitting or lying on the floor, furniture makes no sense. Ah, we carry so much overhead here on the west...
Scooters are to Vietnam what horses were to the Far West. People do anything and everything with them.
The first time I went there was 13 years ago. The street was half bicycles and half scooters. Now, only old people use bicycles, and scooters are hot. It makes sense: Vietnam cities are not that big, and in many narrow streets cars are too big. Also, a family can buy a scooter for 1/5 of the price of a car. And they don't need a garage, since in most homes the ground floor -average 3x3 mt.- has to make room for a freezer, a TV, a motorcycle, a small temple and a family dining on the floor. In that order.
One good thing about bikes: you can 'custom fit' them far more than a car. Of course there are many standard scooters carrying from one inexpressive passenger (maybe with a dog sitting behind) to a family of four (really!). But many are customized to a special need.
I've seen scooters carrying 3 live pigs in their bamboo cylindrical capsules, 6 m long aluminum racks (horizontally), a door (vertically), 2m. high tangerine trees, many -many- 'bulky' bulks, half a shop stock and a heavy roll top desk.
This here, customized for a carpenter, carried quite more than a desk. I bet it was a whole week production being delivered.
If you stroll on a Vietnamese town, quite fast you'll be offered a ride in a cyclo, as cycle rickshaws are known in Vietnam. cyclo raiders are thin as wire and stroll endlessly back and forth. Anyone of them could win the Tour de France easily given the chance. 
Cycle rickshaws are found in all the east, with variations:  In India and China (and Cuba!), the passenger seat is located behind the driver, while in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam the driver sits behind the passenger seat.
They make sense, since cyclos are quicker than other forms of transport if traffic congestion is high. Also cycle rickshaw driving provides essential employment for recent immigrants from rural areas, generally impoverished men
In many cities, most drivers do not own their own cycle rickshaws; instead, they rent them from their owners, some of whom own many. My first time in Vietnam 13 ears ago, cyclos were all different. Now, they are homogeneous, a clare sign that they belong to a company. Up to this point: I saw a row of - say- 30 identical cyclos in a row, each one carrying a japanese tourist, camera in hand. And each head with an identical conical paddy straw hat, obviously recently bought 'en masse'.
All over the East people eat on the street. I've seen this in India, Thailand and Vietnam, and for all I know, it's the same in the rest of Southeast Asia. Of course now you have also McDonalds, but there, the 'golden arches' have two funny overtones. First, people visit them as a weekend retreat, not as a quick lunch solution. Families go there sundays to spend the day. And -in Vietnam- McDonalds signs are done in the same yellow and red hue of the 'hammer and sickle' communist banners hanging all over by the sidewalk meters away. Ironies of life.
But when it comes to real food, you go to these street stalls. They are all over the cities, catered by a family, and people sit on the sidewalks in those omnipresent red and blue low stools, and enjoy these 'home meals'. I was always aiming at omelet and 'Bánh mì' (Small baguettes) as I did not understand what was into most food. But you have any kind of food done by the street vendors, and modern life does not seem to be changing this custom.
For whom likes cluttered stuff - as me- Vietnam is heaven. Just sitting in front of one of these ubiquitous food stalls where everything is in the open is a ball.
Pans, skillets, stools, pieces of wood, broken tables, chopsticks, unknown fruit, plastic bottles, 'ad hoc' canopies, fly swatters, light fixtures, soot, big water cans and people (+ kids) busily juggling it all at ease.


A Banyan is a fig that starts its life as an epiphyte (a plant growing on another plant) when its seeds germinate in the cracks and crevices on a host tree. These small seeds are dispersed by birds and many land on branches and stems of trees. When they germinate they send roots down towards the ground, and may envelop part of the host tree, giving banyans the casual name of "strangler fig", as often it applies heavy pressure and kills the tree. Such an 'enveloped' dead tree eventually rots away so that the Da (banyan) becomes a "columnar tree" with a hollow central core. In jungles such hollows are particularly desirable shelters.
Banyans are often symbol of a village or a temple. In Vietnam many temples and pagodas have one of these trees near the entrance. The 'Da' tree stands for strong and admired historical figures. It's also considered witness the changing of people, the heavens and the whole life cycle. Children play in their roots and teens start dating there.
Da trees are a symbol of longevity, strength and wisdom all over Asia and many writers use them. In Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' the roots of an enormous banyan tree cover an area "half a mile in diameter" and in Brian W Aldiss's 'Hothause' a single huge banyan covers half of the globe.

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