Finding Ping

Finding Ping, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

Five years later, Ping has aged. She is 28 now. She is shorter than I remember and her face is fuller. The unmistakable laugh lines still crowd the corners of her eyes. Her fingers are stained an inky green from the indigo dye she uses to make clothing. She now has four children, three boys and a baby girl. She pats her waistline and tells me she is pregnant with her fifth child. And then she laughs.

I had returned to Sapa with a handful of photos I had taken of the Hmong girls on my last visit. I was hoping to reconnect with a couple of the girls. Ping was one of them. Her friend recognised her in one of my photos and sent to the nearby village for her, 7km down in the valley. I felt bad that she had walked all the way up hill... just to see me.

I don’t know whether Ping remembered me. I doubt it. Her face was so familiar to me as I had studied her photo often in the intervening years. Her face lit up when she saw the photos. She looked at them wistfully and it occured to me, she might not even own a photograph of herself.

We had planned on a walking tour to the villages below Sapa, but the fog was thick and appeared to have no plans to abate. And I was worried that all we would see was the mud and not much else. Instead we accept Ping’s offer to take us to the village the following day. I could give some more of my photos to the women there. If it was still foggy, she would accompany us along the road instead of negotiating the paddy fields and muddy paths. And I liked the idea that we could give her some money for her family, instead of paying a tour company.

The Meat Market

The Meat Market, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

We eat breakfast at a local café. All you can eat for $3.00 including Pho (Vietnamese Beef soup), Omelette, pancakes, banana fritters, fresh fruit and small squares of delicate cream filled sponge cake. The coffee is passable.

Ping is waiting for us outside our hotel. She is barely visible in the mist. It is 10am. She assures us that visibility is better in the village below. I ask if we need to bring umbrellas. She looks up into the mist and then back at me. “No.” she says with conviction.
“It will not rain.”

“We will go to the markets first” she says. The produce market in Sapa is all abustle. The aroma of fresh herbs is intoxiating and fortunately the freshly slaughtered meat doesn’t smell at all in the still cool, morning air.

“Do you eat Tofu?” Ping asks me. “No” I say, thinking of Stan’s dislike of the tasteless stuff. We are standing in front of the Tofu lady. Pieces of fresh Tofu the size of house bricks are piled on a tray, still warm, wisps of vapor trailing off them and joining the mist that shrouds all of Sapa.

It is then that I realise with horror that Ping is shopping for us, that she is planning to make lunch for us in the village. “We’ve brought our own food.” I stammer, remembering the coconut bread and bananas we’d bought earlier. Ping looks a little crestfallen, but determinedly presses on with her shopping. She buys fresh broccolini and shallots and heads into the meat section of the market. She tells me that she can only afford to buy meat, (usually chicken, sometimes pork), for her family once a week. Normally, they just eat rice and vegetables or clear noodle soup.

She points to a table that has very dark red meat on it, there is a small neat pile of paws and a disturbingly familiar looking head. “Dog.” she says simply. I ask if she eats dog and she tells me she doesn’t like the taste. I tell her that people in Australia think it is wrong to eat dog. She just smiles and shrugs. The dog looks like it has been partially cooked. “They cook it a little to remove the hairs.” she informs me. It is hard to make a judgement call, when the local people are so poor and can barely afford to serve any kind of protein to their families. Sure the dogs are cute, but then so are lambs.

She buys pork and I try and reassure myself that the meat is fresh. It is too late for me to play the vegetarian card, I have already told her I eat meat. The voices in my head start to converse. The paranoid voice protests and leads me to consider the parasites that might be still living in the host. The rational voice tells me that the local restaurants would buy their produce from these markets too. The paranoid voice warms me I’ll get sick. The rational voice says its OK, the food will be cooked and kill all the parasites. I double my resolve to stay vegetarian for the remainder of the holiday and start to seriously regret the Tofu decision.

Blessed are the Tofu Makers

Ping and Stan on the way to the Markets

A walk on the wild side

I have been to Sapa before, so I know that beyond the wall of fog on one
side of the roadway is a lush green terraced valley. On the other the
mountains thick with trees rise above us, invisible. It is still, and damp.
The only sound is our boots scrunching on the road. Ping, like many of the
Hmong girls wears socks with brown plastic sandals. I try to convince myself
that this might be a sensible option in a region that is wet with mud.
Easily washed. The footware is cheap and flimsy. Brought from China by the
truckload. A few of the girls are wearing Wellington boots, which seem more
appropriate. I am wearing my $350 hiking boots and specially designed hiking
socks. I regret not bringing my old leather hiking boots to give to someone in
the village instead of throwing them away. They had a small split in the sole,
but in Vietnam they would be easily repaired. Next time. I tell myself. Next time.

As we walk, strange shapes appear out of the mist. Water buffalo, pigs, a
family of Hmong making their arduous journey up to the town. After an hour
we start to slip out from underneath the mist. The shape of rice terraces
start to form and gradually we start to see the the other side of the

Ping tells me that since I saw her last she has moved from a house up in the
mountains, down to a better house in the village. She thinks hard and then
tells me she has a new basket now. She had the old one when I saw her 5
years ago. She refers to her basket, like I¹d refer to my car. (Yes I had a
different car 5 years ago and now I have a new one too.) Ping has very few
possessions, and it is a reflection on the value of what she owns that makes
the replacement of a basket noteworthy. I wonder how much a new basket cost
her. But I don¹t think to ask.

We walk slowly, accompanied by a couple of Ping's friends. It is warmer
closer to the village. Ping sheds the "Dolce and Gabbana" jacket she wears
over the top of her traditional dress. I ask her if she had just the one set
of traditional clothes or many. "Many." she says, and she laughs at me like
I am a fool.

Ping's world exists only between the village of Lao Chai and the township of
Sapa. I ask her if she has ever been to Lao Cai, a large town located only
34 km away. She laughs again. No, she tells me, it is too expensive to go
there. She tells me she has a brother who moved to Hanoi to work. "He didn¹t
come home for New Year's" she says wistfully. I look around at the village
and I don¹t have to wonder why.

The Village of Lao Chai

Ping's house is a wooden hut. The central room is devoid of furniture. The
floor is concrete. In one corner on a tiny shelf is a small colour TV
perched on top of a DVD player and one speaker. There is woman nursing a
baby watching TV. I wonder what programmes come zooming into this village
from around the world. The village is medieval, what I am seeing on the TV
looks like SciFi by comparison. I wonder how Ping and her family make sense
of it.

The TV is switched off in deference to us. The woman, a neighbour, leaves.
Someone brings me a tiny stool to sit on. It is about six inches high and
the size of a paperback book. I look at it and wonder how I am going to
lower myself down that far... with dignity.

A group of children crowd around us. One of them I immediately identify as
Ping's ...he's the naughty one. He looks a little like her and is brimming with
mischief. Ping appears with the ubiquitous blue plastic chairs, two of them.
I think she has borrowed them from a neighbour. It seems that most of
Vietnam park their bottoms on chairs designed for pre-schoolers.

Above us, on either side, are lofts filled with rice sacks and piles of corn
cobs. In the adjacent room is a tiny wooden bed. And beyond that the
kitchen. Dirt floor with a firepit, over which sit a steaming wok. Ping's
husband is crouched nearby. He acknowledges us briefly. But he doesn't speak
English and seems shy.

We watch the kids play. Two of them are playing marbles. They have only
three marbles and a couple of small ball bearings. They play with skill and
precision. One of the boys rolls a steel socket along the ground, like a
small ball. Beyond, one of the village boys plays with a pair of home-made
stilts, while his friends wait to have a turn. These are the kind of toys my
father would have played with 80 years ago. The children seem happy with
their simple pleasures.

There is a barracade made out of bamboo blocking the entrance to Ping's
little front yard. I ask if is to keep her baby from wandering off into the
village. "No." she says. "It's to keep the pigs out." She laughs again.

Lunch for Three

Lunch for Three, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

We are restless and eager to continue on. The walk to the village had taken
longer than we expected and already the mist had caught up with us in the
valley. Ping has disappeared into the kitchen and is cooking. She hasn't
indicated what is happening, so I don't know if she is cooking for her
family or for us. I ask if we can move on soon. (We are feeling out of place
in her home.) She looks a little panicked. "I have cooked for you." she says.
I try to keep my face neutral. "What about your family?" I ask. "They have
already eaten" she replies.

I don¹t think they have. I saw how much pork she bought at the markets and
it is consistent with the amount sizzling in the wok. "We will eat
together." she says. I know I have no choice.

A small oil-stained wooden table is produced. And Ping serves our lunch on
three brightly coloured plastic plates. Her 10 year old son, serves us rice
from an electric rice cooker, that I notice for the first time in the corner
of an adjacent room. The rice cooker is stained white with starch where the
rice has has bubbled over many times before. The food smells delicous. I eat
the potatoes cooked with garlic, the broccolini and the rice, but I am sworn
off eating the pork. Stan eats some of the pork, and feeds some to the dog
when Ping isn't watching, a la Sienfield. A hen and a couple of chicks wander
into the room and are shooed away by the children. Ping's baby girl sits on the
tiny stool while her brother attempts to feed her. She is wearing only a jumper
and pair of sandals. Her bottom is bare. The dog licks the table top when no-one
but me is looking.

Ping notes that we don't eat much. I hope I haven't offended her. I would rather she
gave the pork to her family. On the wall opposite where I am sitting is a corkboard.
The photos I gave Ping yesterday are pinned to it. Ping's wedding photo is there too.
I make a note to photograph it before I leave. Then promptly forget. Later I try to
remember what else was pinned to board, but I can't.

There is a poster of the Virgin Mary on the back wall of the hut. Behind Ping's house is
a functioning Catholic church. A legacy of the French occupation.

The Catholic Church

Our Lady

Our Lady, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

Ping's baby

Ping's baby, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

This is Ping's baby girl. PIng must have been overjoyed to have a daughter, after having three sons. She tells me that her boys are naughty... especially the youngest one. I asked her if they can speak English too. Her command of English is very good. "No." She replied. "They do not want to learn." I told her she should try and teach them, tourism is very important the region and if her children can speak English they will have an advantage and a greater opportunity to obtain work within the hospitality industry. I guess they will learn the same way she did. "From the tourists."

Ping is now pregnant with her fifth child. I hope for her sake it is a girl. Because the girls work hard and support their mothers, and can earn good money from making handicrafts. She tells me the boys just run off into the fields and play.

Her children attend primary school in the village, where they are taught in "Vietnamese." At home they speak the "Hmong" language. The different minority groups all speak a different dialect to each other and converse with each other in Vietnamese or English.

The nearest high school is in Sapa. where the Hmong children are integrated with Vietnamese children. I asked her if they commute all the way up to Sapa, and she told me that they live in the town. Ping told me how this works, but I didn't really understand her explanation. I can't imagine that the government subsidises accommodation for the minority group children to attend high school. And I would have thought the Hmong families too poor to support their children living away from home. Many of the children do not attend high school as they are more valuable to their families as workers. Some of the older Hmong girls run their own guided tours of the village in competition with the tour companies. The girls are overall smart, hardworking and entrepreneurial.

I asked Ping if she speaks other languages apart from Hmong, Vietnamese and English. She told me that she can speak a little French and Italian, but mostly they converse with the tourists in English. She said that the English speaking tourists, predominantly the Australians, are friendlier than some of the other nationalities and therefore the Hmong girls learn the their language more easily. The Hmong boys do not interact with the tourists very much as they are not involved in selling, consequently there are fewer of them that speak English.

Ping's baby's name is "De" (a surprisingly very short sound, the sound we teach babies when they learn the letter d.)

QVB Arcade

QVB Arcade, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

Meet Ping

Meet Ping, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

This is the photo I took of Ping when I first met her five years ago.

My last memory of her was her standing outside the English Pub in Sapa. It was evening, my last evening in Sapa and the mist was descending on us as we stood there. The light was fading. My friends had disappeared inside to the promise of cheap cocktails and warm company. It was getting dark and damp and cold. Ping stood before me with quiet composure and pleaded with her eyes for me to buy just one more thing.

I didn’t want to buy any more things, I had bought more bags and embroidery and blankets than I wanted already. I had bought things I had “pinky promised” to buy. I had bought things out of good grace, out of guilt and out of charity. I had even bought something that had turned my arm green as the dye seeped out of it. The cries from the Hmong girls still ring in my ears. “Why you buy from her, and you no buy from me”. (The last "me" was always protracted, pronouced "Meeeeee".) There was humour in their voices and a friendly rivalry existed between them. But in reality they were all trying to make a little money, fair trade, to support their families. And I know the prettier and pushier girls would sell more. The ones who spoke English more clearly, who flirted and teased and joked with the tourists.

Ping had a sweet serenity about her, there was no hard sell. We stood there eye to eye. The power all mine, how can I not buy just one more bag? Embroidered by her in her small hut high in the mountains above the village of Lao Chai. It cost me a few dollars, less than I would spend on drinks when I joined my friends inside the warmth of the cheery pub.

I saw a small packet of medication in her bag as she put the money away. “It is for my baby” she said “my baby is sick”. I had no reason not to believe her. I asked her how old she was. “Twenty-three” she told me. I thought of my daughter back at home, only a couple of years younger than Ping, attending university, in charge of her own destiny, the world at her feet.

I couldn’t reconcile the two images in my head.

The Girl with Green Umbrella ☂

Motorbike Check List

Now let me see... what do I need before I take my life in my hands and join the manic throng of Saigon traffic?

Face Mask––––––––––––check
Designer Sunglasses____check
Long Evening Gloves____check
Sleeveless Jacket_______check
Cut-off Jeans__________check

Erm... there is something else...

Don’t tell me... don’t tell me...

I’ve painted my toenails...

Now I remember...

Gold Slip-on Stilettoes_____check.

Wikileaks Rally

Wikileaks Rally, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

We called by the Free Julian Assange Rally outside the Sydney Town Hall the other day. There was something for everyone, including a woman with kooky sunglasses blowing bubbles across the crowd. I read that there were 500 people there, but when we turned up not long after the official starting time, there would have been barely 100 people there. The police looked bored and most of the placards were really promoting other political causes. I really don't think Australians care enough to rally about most things. We are pretty isolated geographically from the rest of the world... and hey its summer time, there are plenty of other outdoor activities to keep us amused.

Cooking Mice

Cooking Mice, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

We were nearly at the Cu Chi Tunnels when our driver stopped at a small roadside market. He knew we liked to photograph things, and I was please that he took the opportunity to stop. He was also quite attentive as we crossed the road, making quite sure there was no traffic coming in either direction before he allowed me to cross.

The market consisted of half a dozen people selling their wares on a narrow strip of dirt between the road and adjacent field. There was the usual pile of bananas, sweet potatoes and other fruit and veg. A green plastic bucket filled with a writhing mass of eels. The women were friendly, smiling, holding up their babies to be photographed. The only man was working hard at doing nothing as he lounged in a hammock. The woman all laughed when they saw me taking his photo.

I had seen enough, and was just about to turn back, when the driver said “Cooking mice.”, and pointed to a wire cage at the end of the “market”. I turned to Stan... “Did he say ‘Cooking mice’?” Stan nodded.

On closer inspection, most of the “Cooking mice”, looked more like cooking rats. I bent in close enough to take a photo or two and then quickly retreated to the comparative safety of the backseat of the Merc. I comforted myself with the knowledge, that I knew the words for beef, chicken and pork in Vietnamese and that I mostly eat vegetarian food when I travel.

From Wikipedia...
Paddy mouse meat - barbecued, braised, stir or deep fried - is a rare dish that can be found in many Vietnamese rural areas or even high-end city restaurants.

Roadside Market

Roadside Market, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.


QVB, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

The Queen Victoria Building, or QVB, is a late nineteenth century building by the architect George McRae in the central business district of Sydney, Australia. The Romanesque Revival building is 190 metres long by 30 wide, and fills a city block, bounded by George, Market, York and Druitt Streets. Designed as a shopping centre, it was later used for a variety of other purposes until its restoration and return to its original use in the late twentieth century.

The original building included coffee shops, showrooms and a concert hall. It provided a business environment for tradesmen such as tailors, mercers, hairdressers, and florists. The concert hall was later changed to a municipal library and the building was partitioned into small offices for Sydney City Council. The building steadily deteriorated and in 1959 was threatened with demolition. It was restored between 1984 and 1986 by Ipoh Ltd at a cost of $86 million, under the terms of a 99-year lease from the City Council and now contains mostly upmarket boutiques and "brand-name" shops.

Photo taken with Multiple Flash.

Sorry folks... just taking a short break from the Vietnam photos. We shot this yesterday outside a cafe in Surry Hills in Sydney (Le Pain Quotidien - my favourite cafe). Couldn't resist this group of passing Flash Enthusiasts on their way to a "Convention"

Village of the Damned [ Well Dressed ]


X-box, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.
f you think the title is a little obscure... check out the link below to a Ronnie Corbett Comedy Sketch.
My Blackberry Is Not Working!

To check out more things on bikes click here: Bikes of Burden

A stack of sacks

The Motorbike in Vietnam is more that just a humble form of transport. It is equivalent to the family car in other countries, with families of four or sometimes more perched on top. Things I have seen being transported on a motorbike in Vietnam include:
A large mirror.
A wardrobe.
A refrigerator.
A family of 5 people.
25 feet of plastic pipe.
A huge bunch of helium filled balloons.
Carcasses of meat.
A canvas painting.
Sacks of rice.
Sacks of concrete.
Flower arrangements.
Bonsai Trees.
Crates of Beer.
A large electrical cooling fan. (making the whole contraption look like a hovercraft)
Massive tower of toilet rolls.
and a girl riding pillion holding an umbrella over her boyfriend’s head.

Motorbikes fill up most of the roadways and footpaths. On the footpaths people sit on their bikes. Eat on their bikes and socialize on their bikes. Sometimes they even sleep on their bikes.

Inside the A380

Inside the A380, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

OK, I admit I did glance out the windows a couple of times to check the engines weren't on fire.

The Barber's Shop

Yes, this is a Barber's Shop... Vietnam style, where so many business are literally run on the street. Happily watching TV, powered by a portable generator, this guy's business consists of a mirror, a chair, and an old tin full of shaving and hair cutting gear. No overheads, no wages. Just a little bit of streetscape and the desire to earn money.


Incense, originally uploaded by alison lyons photography.

Well I'm back from my whirlwind trip of Vietnam... overwhelmed by the sights and sounds. We took over 6,600 photos between us. The D3s with the 28-300mm lens proved to be a winning combination for travel. We were constantly wrestling the camera out of each other's hands. With the D700 being treated like a poor cousin.

We arrived home this morning at 7am having spent Monday night on the plane from Singapore and Sunday night on a train from Sapa in Northen Vietnam, so I haven't really slept in a proper bed since Saturday night. My hair still smells of incense and woodfire smoke from the mountains of Vietnam and I can still hear the constant honking of motorbike horns ringing in my ears. It will take a day or two to settle back into the relative order of Sydney life and to the affluence of a western lifestyle.

Two days ago I ate lunch in a village hut. The floor of the main room was concrete and the meal was cooked on a wok over a fire pit dug into the dirt floor of the kitchen. The Hmong girl Ping who cooked for us is 28 years old. She has four children under the age of 10 and is six months pregnant with her 5th child. Her husband doesn't work, and she sells handicrafts in the local town to support her family. Her life extends from the village of Lao Chai to the nearby town of Sapa 7km further up the mountain. The only furniture in her house is a small wooden bed, a table and a couple of tiny wooden stools.

Since leaving the hospitality of her humble home, I have driven in the streets of Hanoi in a 1939 Vintage Citroen Light 15, flown in a Boeing 777 to Singapore and an A380 to Sydney and I have watched 3 in-flight movies. I bought Duty Free alcohol and have taken photos with a camera and lens worth $9,000. I have driven to my comfortable suburban home in my shiny red Civic Sports. Tonight I will luxuriate in a steaming hot shower and climb into a king-size bed and sleep soundly under a goose down quilt.

Sometimes I have trouble making sense of the world. I guess that is why I travel in the first place.

So this is Christmas



A bicycle built for four

To the Christmas lights

Christmas in Saigon


Arriving in Saigon on Christmas Eve, we don’t know what to expect. The three most prominent religions in Vietnam are Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, known collectively as Tam Giao, Three Teachings or Triple religion. (kinda like hedging your bets if you ask me). Added to this are spirit worship, ancestor veneration and worship of national heros. Vietnam also has a large population of Christians a legacy from the 16th century missionaries who brought Catholicism to South East Asia. Still, we don’t really think they are going to be celebrating Christmas.

We are collected from the airport by limousine and are swept into the city in a tidal wave of motorbikes and traffic. The bikes kept surging around us, an endless parade of colour and noise, all jostling for position. I keep wondering where they were all coming from and going to.

Christmas IS big in Saigon. Coloured street lights everywhere. Christmas trees in all the stores and every second motorbike is carrying a family of three or four people. They are on their way to the city centre to see the Christmas lights and Department store Christmas displays.

Vietnam has only recently (2007) introduced the mandatory wearing of helmets on motorcycles. And I believe helmets are provided free to school children as an incentive. Almost all the adults we see are wearing helmets, but only a few of the children. Most of the children and babies are dressed in Santa Hats or Christmas outfits. Babies held in their mothers’ arms and small children standing between their fathers and the handlebars of the bikes, all with a carefree nonchalance that defies the chaos, cacophony and potential danger all around them. We roll down the window to take photos from the car. The cold air rushes out as the steamy heat, bike fumes and street noise rushes in. The constant honking of horns will be a sound that we will get used to, but tonight, after a long day of travelling, it accosts our eardrums. We wind the window back up, and sink into the darkness, while the bikes continue to swirl around us.

Close to our hotel we are gridlocked in traffic. Our driver inches across the intersection, amid a constant chorus of honking horns. I look out the side window of the car at a wall of traffic facing me and only inches from the glass. Inch by inch we move forward as does the traffic around us. There seems to be no road rage. The honking is a warning to other vehicles and is not used in anger. The drivers are patient and persistent. Our driver parks against the traffic on the footpath outside the front door, the only available space. The Hotel Majestic is an oasis of light and calm after the mania in the streets. Built in 1925 it is all old world colonial French charm, heavy wood paneling and attentive staff. The foyer is filled with Christmas lights reflecting off the marble floor. A young Vietnamese bride is perched ungainly on a push bike in her Wedding Dress in front of a large Christmas Tree, while her photographer snaps wedding photos. The groom stands nearby looking uncomfortable and bored. We pass the dining room where wedding guests dine to the strains of Latin Music, into the lift and fall into the quiet sanctuary of the hotel room, the air conditioning is deliciously icy and double glazed windows keep the sounds of Saigon far from our ears. We will sleep well, in a city that seems to have no intention of sleeping.

My banana looks like a Persian kitten

My banana looks like a Persian kitten

My banana looks like a Persian kitten I thought to myself and I weighed up the option of saying it out loud. We were sitting at the rooftop restaurant overlooking the river in Saigon and something I ate the day before was sitting like a brick in my stomach. I momentarily wondered if I was hallucinating.

"My banana looks like a Persian kitten" I finally ventured.

He looked at me from across the table with a slightly bemused look, as if he didn't believe me. As if!

I proferred my knife with a slice of banana precariously balanced on it and he laughed. It did look like a the face of a little yellow cat.

He reached for the camera, just as my stomach lurched again and I decided I couldn't bring myself to eat the kitten. Even though I knew it was just a humble slice of banana.

Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano player

The Remnants of War

The Remnants of War

Remnants plural of rem·nant (Noun)

1. A small remaining quantity of something.
2. Something left over; a remainder.
3. A surviving trace or vestige.
4. A small surviving group of people. Often used in the plural.

The War Remnants Museum is a must-see destination in Saigon. To quote Lonely
Planet “there are few museums in the world that drive home so well the point
that war is horribly brutal and many of its victims are civilians”.

The films, photos and other items on display document atrocities committed by
American, Chinese and French soldiers in grim detail. Events told from the
Vietnamese perspective are both moving and thought provoking. Even those who
supported “The American War”, as it is referred to in Vietnam, would have
difficulty remaining unaffected by the photographs of children suffering
the effects of US bombing and Napalm.

I think this is a good place to start our trip to Vietnam, to set the scene and form a backdrop;
and to provide perspective to all that we will witness in the days ahead.

The museum pulls no punches. There are glass jars with deformed fetuses
preserved in formaldehyde, the ongoing result of agent orange; explicit
photos of horrendous injuries; there is an entire room dedicated to the many
journalists from fifteen nations who were killed while attempting to
document the war around them; one room houses a guillotine used by the
French on the Viet Mihn “troublemakers”. In the background there is
“happy music” playing, inconsistent with the images of war.

Outside the main building the courtyard is dotted with military vehicles,
tanks, helicopters and planes. It is cool inside the main museum building,
despite the intense humidity outside.

There is a somberness to the exhibits. We split up, each of us taking our
own journey through the museum. It is overwhelming and confronting. We feel
discomfort looking at the images, but it is nothing compared to the
atrocities suffered by the victims whose haunting eyes look back at us over
time. I wonder how some of them continued to live.

A separate room displays a photographic essay of babies with hideous
deformities. I am at once fascinated and abhorred by what I see. The images
are grotesque, surreal ...the stuff of horror movies, not real life.

I find Stan across the hallway, he has tears in his eyes. We just look at
each other for a few moments. I am lost for words. Stan mentions the band
and I realize that the incongruous happy music that has been playing is
actually being performed live. In the corner of the room, there is a hapless
band of players. Dressed in orange T-shirts, they are the real life
remnants of the war. Young adults who carry the legacy of chemical warfare
in a war fought before they were born. A couple of them are in wheelchairs,
diminutive and deformed, the amputees sit on the floor making
bracelets out of coloured beads. A young man is collecting money for charity
and is especially insistent that we sign our names in the register. I feel
an uncontrollable sadness.

I ask if it is OK to take a photo, I feel awkward
and ashamed of what “we”, the west, have done, although I was only a little
girl when the war was being fought. I want to record what I am seeing to
share with my friends and family. This is a part of the war that we don’t
see on the sanitized documentaries we watch at home on our giant plasma TVs.
I need to be able to share this moment without feeling the guilt of exploitation.
My motive is pure. I raise the camera to take the photo and the tiny man in the
wheelchair smiles warmly at me. I notice he has laugh lines at the corner of his eyes.
My heart melts. For all he knows, we could be Americans. Yet he smiles at me.
I want to look at each of the band members and study their deformities, but it is too hard.
I feel embarrassed at my inability to deal with what I am seeing.

I remember a quote by Daniel Ellsberg from the documentary “Hearts and
Minds”... “We weren’t on the wrong side in Vietnam, we WERE the wrong side.”

Stan is standing next to me, he speaks and his voice cracks. “The
keyboard player”, he says “he has no eyes”. I look across, the keyboard
player is not just blind, there is only skin where his eyes should have been.
He is playing a happy up-beat tune, I wonder if he feels as optimistic as the music he is playing.

I leave some more money. How could it be enough.

We slip out into the sunshine, and the hubbub that is Ho Chi Mihn’s city.

I can’t stop thinking about the man with no eyes.

Ho Ho Ho Chi Mihn Christmas!

Majestic Breakfast

I was half way through breakfast when I remembered it was Christmas morning. We were sitting in the rooftop terrace restaurant of the Hotel Majestic in Saigon and there was a cool breeze wafting through the humidity of the early morning heat. I had eaten an omelette prepared for me while I waited, by the short order cook; downed a small pancake covered with banana and honey; and was navigating a plate of largely weird and unknown tropical fruit when the thought occurred to me. It was beginning to feel not at all like Christmas.

We spent the early part of the morning at the War Remnants Museum and returned by taxi, via a circuitous route, to the centre of town. After arguing with the taxi driver about the tariff he demanded. (I always amaze myself that I can fight with taxi drivers in foreign countries, in languages I don’t speak. Why taxi drivers think I am stupid, just because I don’t speak their language is beyond me, I also have a phenomenal sense of direction, bit of a party trick and a fairly uncommon trait in a women, so I know when I am being “taken for a ride”.) I employed a technique that I developed in Tunisia with the taxi drivers there. Throw the correct money on the front seat and get out quick. It was then I discovered that an entire aerosol can of sunblock had mysteriously emptied itself throughout my backpack. Luckily it was an alcohol based one, so it was more wet than sticky. By the time we had composed ourselves from the taxi ordeal and mopped up the contents of the bag we realised we had landed ourselves in the midst of Christmas fairyland. Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!

I don’t know why I didn’t expect the department stores of Vietnam to have Christmas displays in their windows. It happens in London, Sydney, New York, so why not Ho Chi Minh City?

And I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to photograph children without being treated like a pedophile. The Vietnamese people have a strong sense of family and are proud of their children. Whenever I asked, proud parents or grandparents would hold up their babies for me to photograph. Unlike the stupid political correctness that is infecting Australian society where photographing someone else’s child is treated with suspicion and contempt, in Vietnam it is treated as an honour. For a people who have every right to mistrust foreigners, we experienced no hostility, just friendly happy people.

If we as a society, cannot celebrate the innocence and beauty of children, then we have lost our souls. The Vietnamese people, despite the ravages of war and invasion, haven’t lost theirs.