I’ve been wondering if a country can project its own distinctive colour – beyond its flag and other ‘given’ colours. I’m curious if there’s another, overriding group of hues that surface naturally, with time and observation. I’m always interested in the accidental and accumulative effect of life on colour- or is it colour on life. The unpredictable, mash-up of human activity on nature, over time. A few months ago, I wrote about finding a colour palette within a quiet town in Scotland- a 10,000 step route walked in a couple of hours with a camera. This time, with an opportunity to travel further a field, I’ve been fighting a tourist’s eyes to conceive Vietnam as a series of colours through photography. From South to North over 21 days, from city to town to village. I totalled up my steps tracked on my phone, 224,660 in all. I’m wondering if this is enough to presume my own colour palette for Vietnam in 2016.
My methods are not scientific but I hope impartial, as much as a visitor can be. This is just for fun and because I can’t help but look for a theme. My textile eyes trained to pick out prevailing elements of texture, shape and colour. I’ve been happily editing my 668 photos of Vietnam this Christmas, trying to reduce and simmer its colour. Here are 20 images that emit a certain something, a colour story, unfolding over five themes.
1.The Walls and Pavements of Hoi An
I’ll begin here in Hoi An, it’s a common stop and from my straw polls among travellers, its a colourful favourite of Vietnam. Like a historical world of Oz, Hoi An is waking up in Technicolor. Near the East coast, in central Vietnam, sits the ancient town, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was an important trading point between Indonesia, China, Japan and beyond, so influences in architecture are rich and varied. Most striking are the sienna painted walls in the Old Town and primary coloured lanterns stealing all the glory at night time .
Not convinced by these too-easy-to-spot features, I find my camera pointing downwards towards the curb side and where wall meets pavement. Layers of time across surface, interrupted by tourist markers – a toilet sign and another satin lantern.
Everyday objects are also camouflaged. The bucket sinks into the dirty greys of the pavement in which it sits. Plastic meets plaster – the ubiquitous water bottle seems to shine against, mottled walls. The vegetation creeps in and needs managing, so the white washed tree trunk offers shade and structure in the picture. Of all the shops, in all the towns, in all the world, these two dogs settle down here, to sleep in lovely colour coordination.
2. Still Life Groups of Colour
I’ll comment on this in the hope of a shared experience with the reader, or I’ll risk me sounding quite strange…that arrangements of any duplicate object, seemingly uncontrived – will cause a mini star jump in my gut. I feel a reliable glee in stumbling across these creations. Here’s a few examples of duplicates, from the cities of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi.
Looking out for motorbikes are a great way to spot these groups. What not who travels on these scooters never fails to impress in South East Asia. Gobsmacked most of the time and humbled by what people decide and manage to transport. If only I was quick enough to capture more examples, (see hot and humid excuses from my Bali blog). These plaster bags, or maybe former rice bags sit like fattened hips around the bike, unforeseen but now a natural fit. Grubby whites on whites with their beautiful texture a bonus.
The city shops in Vietnam also appear in groups: a row of painters, a row of bookshops, a row of framers, of kitchen ware, of steering wheels… glee all round. I find myself in Sewing Machine Street, feeling educated by the variations on offer. I cast my mind back to Europe, where sewing machines go to die in an All Saints shop window, while here in Vietnam, they live again. Manufacture is highly visible. And is anything more compelling to witness than the craft behind work. The hot climate reveals it all, as shops and services spill outside, onto the pavement. I watch my step as I steer between tools, cooking food, paint, all sorts of necessary debris. The pavement belongs to the activity, not to the pedestrian. I get to know my place and hesitantly fill my camera. Acutely aware and a bit embarrassed of the me at leisure not at graft. The muted salmon pinks of the mechanic’s rags are carefully spaced in a circle to dry – looking so wishy washy against the man’s pure blue suit. It’s not such a well composed picture, I snap at haste, but the contents feels rich. I’m only just noticing the wiry and delicate coat hangers, wonky and working.
And finally the bike of greens, fresh and vibrant. The vegetables seem to have their own light source, radiating among the street scene. The duplicated poster back drop is a happy find, its whites echoing the woman’s shirt and enriching the greens. I’m not ignoring the red container holding the courgettes in the corner, complimentary colours at play.
3. The Textiles on Ba Ca Market Day
In the very north of Vietnam, near the Chinese border, is a beautiful mountainous region, known by visitors for trekking and experiencing remote village life. I stayed in the town of Sa Pa, and travelled over to Ba Ca Sunday Market, the weekly ‘everything’ market attended by many ethnic communities, each with distinctive dress and colour. I realise at a later date, there are strong feelings about tourists visiting these markets, their presence gradually changing the nature of the scene, souvenirs now competing on space with everyday necessities for locals. As well as tech heavy tourists documenting it all – lets not talk about selfie sticks.
I am one of these tourists of course, I know. I try to be sensitive, not wanting to invade or interrupt the scenes – I avoid portraits and children. I am reluctant to comment too much on the images, they speak it all. I stand back and am forever floored by the status of textiles here. The pride. It’s all encompassing presence, how textiles are revered and entrenched, as one being, in the dress, the craft, the fibre and blue fingers I spot from home made indigo dye. The traditional designs sing out in a stunning clash with plastic sandals, high heels, muddy buffalos and chequered umbrellas. Dusty ginger roots meet ultra marine.
4. Colour in Architecture
My home in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for a few days, was a housing block of beige-white and homely green in District 5, a friendly neighbourhood, a maze of entrances, cafes and food vendors at its feet. Stepping out the door to Ho Chi Minh had a dizzying effect each new day. I was staying on the 6th floor, where cooking smells and sounds wafted up the interior atrium, making a welcome dent in my early alienation. That feeling subsiding with a street meal of smoking bbq pork, rice and sweet chilli sauce. I ate, sheltered from the rain and watched how the traffic moved at dusk. I relaxed. This city was my introduction to Vietnam. The rain fell most days and the traffic continued at large. I braced myself for road crossing, my photography slowed by the overwhelming demand on my attention to stay alive.
There is an abundance of colour and detail here in the city, but its this chalky backdrop of the buildings I recall about HCMC, the grids, the geometry and order supporting the immense activity on the ground.
Whites, creams and pastels contrast with the lush dark evergreens, found in this serene church courtyard. I wandered into the quiet space, intrigued by the concrete seating, matching the direction of stonework on the ground. Are they patiently waiting for a too busy church? I’m not sure.
The tile floor inside the Central Post Office, is 1890’s grandeur and delicate details from French Colonial times. The building was designed by Gustave Eiffel, famous for The Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower. Its still in operation, buy your stamps here! I sat weary on a high backed wooden bench, watching the crowds and wondering if I could smuggle-eat my fresh spring rolls and sauce. I did. I ate and watched the action a while. I photographed all sorts of variations of legs, tiles and foot ware on this floor beneath me. Waiting for the crowd to move so I could experiment with its lines and angles.
The chalky grid continues in the high rise, the coffee shop pick n mix. My tip to any visitor to HCMC: when searching for a quirky place to drink, look up. Every balcony a different coffee shop. One of my favourites was Mockingbird Cafe, hunt it down or take advice from the Vietnam Coracle, with a lovely post dedicated to the hidden HCMC cafe. Back to colour – the splash of turquoise glass is a palette high note. Heading skywards, the coloured glass a giveaway of the rising high-tech HCMC. Right now, there are unique opportunities to capture this, the dual presence of before and after.
5. Living on the Land
The last theme to mention must go to the landscape in Vietnam. These four images are a mixture of the northern and mountainous Sa Pa region and Ninh Binh, south of Hanoi, famous for the rugged limestone scenery. These areas have outstanding beauty no doubt, the darkest passages of a war memoir will speak of it. Zooming in among the topography, I was drawn to the details, the harvest, the materials, the evidence of people.
The drying corn was seen in a village home near Sa Pa. I joined a small group tour, led by local women, trekking between villages. This pile of corn lies on the ground, outside a home. It will dry over the year and be a supply of animal feed. The colour of drying corn is much brighter than I expected, revealing a fiery orange hue within.
The glimpses of synthetic colour and material jar the eye in these images of the land. The signs of everyday life either blend in like postcard whimsy or feel incongruent and messy. I like the variety on display, the texture and gentle colour, bar some royal blue plastic. There’s a sense of waiting here in the villages. Not by the people themselves, they are busy. But by what they can control in their environment. Waiting for the elements to play their part in maintaining life, breathing air through it all.
It’s impossible to separate rice fields from a memory of Vietnam, yielding 3-4 crops a year, these fields are the hardest working in South East Asia. Depending on the stage of the crop, the colour will change. My visit during October was just around and after harvest, a darker stubbier green. I got lucky in my visit to Tam Coc, near Ninh Binh, witnessing the lush lime green before cutting. On a day tour, a small group of us cycled between fields at harvest. Our guide described the reality of cutting stems in knee deep, water clogged fields. The working women we met showed us their tools, a hand held scythe and protective clothing, a skin tight bodysuit shielding skin from leeches. In Asia, they say Rice is Life. Getting closer to the reality of production I understand this anew.
It’s an interesting task, to explore creative choices through colour, it’s helped steer my memories. Solidify my interests. It’s how I come to know a place, a cheat sheet to jump in or be pulled in and inquire after. Can a country project its own distinctive colour palette? Regardless of my camera and my chosen stories, it will. Next year or two, perhaps I’ll go back and have another go, walk another 21 days and inquire again.