Art Lawyer Mekhala Dave and her brother, Siddhant Dave took off to the wondrous land of Vietnam recently. Here’s your chance to join them on their trip to Vietnam and see its beauty through the eyes of two Indians.
I was often asked, ‘Why choose Vietnam? That is an odd destination for a vacation.’ Our journey to Vietnam allowed us, my brother and me, to roam a destination worthy of exploration. We left behind the intimidating city on the verge of a breakout, as New Delhi raged on in the cruelty of summer.
There is no direct route to Vietnam from India, only transit flights via neighbouring Southeast Asian countries.
Hoi An belongs on the coast of Vietnam Central Sea, in the Quang Nam province. Untainted by modernity or crowding of buildings as it is, I noticed the lucidity in the skies and newness of the air when I arrived . I was sedated from the blanketed splendour of paddy fields around us. Houses whizzed past in pastel shades beside our rented bicycles. Doors to them revealed a familiarity of the living, of our Asian kind: low seating furnishing, wires running as veins to television sets, and dainty flowers jammed in dusty old vases. I felt gripped by nostalgia in the effortlessness of a demure space shared by locals and tourists.
Across from houses, streets were brazen with cyclists, motorcyclists and green taxis, communist flags implanted at occasional checkpoints.
In the realm of Hoi An is an old town, like a gospel of transient dreams of the colonial past. Mangled from the Chinese, Portuguese and French influences, the old quarter-styled infrastructure reveals the subtext of their cultural strengths, as stamped by UNESCO. The predominance of reds, blues, pale creams and oranges on the buildings are a balm for sore eyes.
During daytime, pungent smells from meat skewers wrapped in fresh rice cakes wafted from street food vendors. The cuisine of Vietnam is diverse; although sea food is predominant, meat of various kinds are also relevant and inclusionary, like the skins of reptiles.
At the riverfront, lantern fest is around the clock, as the sun goes down, Thu Bon River, a former ancient trade point, transformed into an enchanting menace of a night with seductive lights in paper lanterns, to the glee of the whimsical moonlight.
There was overwhelming power in the vastness of Cua Dai beach that unveiled the horizon, a reboot to a chilling thought that braces everyone – humanity is only a fleeting phenomenon in the tempestuous seas.
You know that you have arrived in Vietnam.
But the real capture is the intent behind the forlorn expressions of the lantern-makers or the spunky chortle of the youth of the evolving city. After we spent time with locals, in friendly talks and pleasant vibes, we evidenced they are wrung in limbo of traditions and pragmatism. There is still a mystery that lingers around the old folk among lantern makers, a daunting mask worn from Vietnam’s struggle of independence from incessant foreign invasions.
Home to Calamari fishermen, they brace the seas in all weather conditions to sell their finds to restaurant running families. One such family we encountered attended our table. Wan, her name was, bespectacled and chirpy. She always waved from her restaurant, across from where we stayed, in hopes of attracting passers-by to her home cooked meals.
Very few people know of the ‘Vietnamese Boat Stories,’ their struggle with the repercussions of Vietnam Wars (1978-1979), pandemonium of governmental conflicts and subsequent Chinese invasions. Roughly 2 million locals fled from their country by large boats and ships. During such times, many often lost their way and hardly made it to the shores of another place. Abducted by pirates, women and children suffered most, from violence and mass rapes. Some managed to escape and, today, have survived in Australia and Scotland to share their stories.
The people of Hoi An are graciously swift and remarkably hard-working. Locals are unsurprised with influx of tourists as the city is comprised of people of all colours. Especially in walk-in tailor shops, everything from shoes, clothes and leather bags are made by the delicate and nimble hands of tailors. The shops employ a ton of sales girl. We happened to ask one of them, as we got coats custom made, why in particular women are fore runners of tailor shops. A candid smile grew across her face as she told us women are better at sales for tourists. But her smile quickly darkened when we asked about her family.
She was the sole bread earner, worked many hours a day, while the husband looked after their children and her parents. She wished the husband worked too and contributed to their earnings. Although this is a poignant change that women are capable of a rock-solid career, often, women are restrained with distinct gender roles which is largely absent in Hoi An.
When we stopped by a young girl on the street for succulent hazelnut ice creams, she narrowed our perception and led us to conclude there is gender disparity in Hoi An; in probability, there are more women than men. Yet, there are no hardened roles for men and women in workspaces and at homes.
The Vietnamese are sobering into an economic upswing, with an agricultural reliance in their market of textile fabrics and quality tailoring, delectable cuisines for tourists, and sundry resorts tracing along the shore lines, entering into largely a middle- and high-income group. With swift support from the World Bank and IMF, lifting the trade embargo between the US and Vietnam in 1994 for rice exports and encouraging foreign investors and private businesses, poverty began to substantially recede. One could iterate they are riding the silhouette of capitalism to run the economy of a very communist country.
As we roamed Hoi An, Vietnam with our cameras hanging from our shoulders, we felt Hoi An’s magic in between the lines. The secret run in the inlay and timing of a photograph, wrapped into the texture of the moment. Photographs are designed to bring the subject and photographer in the same breath as an intimacy between two people. When exploring the skin of a place, you let go of who you are and what you know. Vietnam, through imageries, is beyond her bloodied history, mixture of cultural invasions or capitalism sans communism. It is instead about her people trying to make ends meet and to contextualise meaning into their lives, of lingered innocence and simplicity.
Words and Photos Courtesy of Mekhala Dave & Siddhant Dave