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Fortune favours the prepared mind – The race for a sunset location in Tra Vinh

Sunset in Tra Vinh.

We roamed around the country side all day, passing fields being harvested and stopped wherever we felt would be a good location. As the daylight started to decrease its strength, we started contemplating a suitable location for a sunset shot. Something visually interesting that could serve as a silhouetted foreground. After a wild goose chase along narrow countryside lanes a fraction of the standardised size of an European pavement, we reached the conclusion that we would not find what we were looking for along these paths. Racking our brains for an answer as dusk was setting in, we decided to head back to one of our first places of the day, a field with a small river running next too and with a wooden footbridge.

This was the very moment the effort of carrying a tripod all day paid off. These images could not have been captured unless at an increased ISO setting, a trade off I did not like. Without a tripod, we probably would have headed off to the local restaurant earlier as driving after dark on countryside roads are not something you really want to do. Not on a weekend anyway, when the rate of drunk drivers increase as the evening sets in and more alcohol has been consumed. Enjoy the sunset, we sure did!

Sunset in Tra Vinh.

Sunset in Tra Vinh and capturing the right moment.

Sunset in Tra Vinh.

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The Mouse, The Snake & Facing your Fears in Tra Vinh

The Mouse

Saigon 5am a Friday morning. We are setting off on our road trip to our destination, Tra Vinh. 10.30am we check in to our hotel with sore buttocks. A few pitstops on the way, each one proved more and more difficult to dismount the bike as the soreness increased. It was worth it. We will be back. I ended up with 3400 raw captures over those three days we stayed. It will take me much longer to process and edit those images than the trip itself, however, the first story is the one about the mouse and the snake.

The hotel restaurant, like many other restaurants, kept a few containers with live stock. You could order fresh seafood and, more unusual, at least to the restaurants I frequent,  you could also order live snakes.

I didn’t spot it until the following day, arriving for breakfast I saw the mouse. Standing in the only free corner with three sleeping snakes in the others. The poor mouse was terrified. It was trembling and had no escape route. It was scared. It did not want to look back at the snakes. Only stared into the corner. We felt sorry for the mouse but also did not know what to do about it. Snakes will only eat live bait. That I learned on my trip back to Norway. At Akvariet i Bergen, they use long tongs to hold dead mice and bounce them around so the snakes believe they are alive. It is illegal to feed live mice to snakes in Norway. In Tra Vinh it was clearly different.

The Snake

In the wild, snakes will hunt mice. That is a normal action for a snake and a normal fate for a mouse. Taking the mouse out of the cage would only expose the mouse to another option of death. Finishing our breakfast with our minds still thinking about the mouse, we went out and saw the mouse was no longer trembling in the corner. It had accepted its fate and faced its fear. The mouse had walked straight up to the snake. At a point it even touched the snake. The snake wasn’t interested in waking up, leaving the courageous mouse standing there, ready to face death.

This triggers other thoughts. About mortality. About ourselves and our time in this world. Will we be scared and afraid or will we be able to face and embrace death as this mouse did? It is also a reminder to not get stuck in the rut of the routine and let life pass without doing what we want to do. In my Facebook stream I recently read “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” For me, that was a few weeks back and hopefully sometime real soon. I wish the same to you, do something new soon.

Facing your fear

 

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Meet the Ebretta and the V-Tronic, the electric vintage looking scooters

The Ebretta and the V-Tronic

Saigon Scooter Centre (SSC), have just launched two electric scooters, a Lambretta and a Vespa, perfect for inner-city travel. Speed of up to 60km per hour and a traveling distance of 40 kilometers on a full charge ought to be enough to whizz around town in green style.

Patrick, from SSC, brought the bikes over to the studio for a product shoot session. We have photographed everything from small nuts and bolts to petrol tanks and complete bikes previously. Over 1500 individual parts have been photographed up to now. Patrick also organise the annual Charity Scooter Run that we are proud to be one of the sponsors to.

We spent the afternoon photographing the two bikes, the results you can see here, and by the way, Patrick will have the first bikes available for delivery in August, that’s only a few more months, so if you are interested, head over to his site here.

Which one do I prefer? I must admit I’d go for the Lambretta.

The V-Tronic Vespa.

Old style voltmeter.

Frontview with seat open.

The battery controller.

The batteries, one on each side.

Charge outlet. Industry standard cord. 3 hours for full charge.

The full view.

Ebretta, full view.

Close up.

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On the road to Moc Bai, Vietnam and the Cambodia border

The Road Traveler.

Thundering down the road at the speed of a turtle. Steamrolling through the landscape. It had to be captured. Man riding his big metal beast, flattening anything that may come in front of the rollers. Shortly after, we are thundering down the road too, on our metal horse, the motorbike.

Stopping again to have a look. Love is in the air. Strung up in plain sight. Mickey & Minnie next to each others with swaying love hearts in the lazy wind. Love is in the air for this store.

Love strung up in the air.

Pressing onwards, we come across a harvest. As the harvester cuts, the boys inspect the site and picks up whatever they can find. Dead rodents and snakes are separated into different containers. The fields holds many surprises, but man has the deadliest machine of the day as they circle around until they are done.

The Harvest.

As we travel along the road, something catches my eye. I slam the brakes, stop the bike and lock it and start running. All the way until I reach the shore. I just made it as my finger press the shutter. The boat is where I wanted it to be, not too far away and not too close as it is continuing the lines. Pre-visualisation in action. Stepping in mud during my short sprint was worth it.

The Lake.

Off the main road and alongside the canal in the middle of nowhere as they normally say. That is where we see them. The boys. Just finished school. On a Saturday. In uniforms. Playing as long as they can until they split up to their separate houses. The crossroad is to them the equivalent of the water cooler for the office staff. Their hangout place. Squeezing as much time out as they can before they really ought to leave.

The School Boys.

We leave them laughing behind and settle for a shot of a road sign once we reach the main road again.

Road Sign.

It’s peaceful along the border road. Not as much traffic as anticipated. Either goods are not shipped by articulated lorries across the border or trade has trickled down. You can judge the import/export economy by the number of lorries that ply the roads. We end up with a landscape shot in silence.

Landscape.

The busiest the road gets is when we do a flower close up. Note the vehicle in the distance. We have proof of traffic. It’s blurred as the famous UFO images, but dear reader, we did not put in a toy truck, nor did we photoshop one in. We did truly encounter a bit of traffic.

Flowers.

To end our journey to the countryside, what would be more fitting as an image of the “Sign of the horns”.

Sign of the horns.

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A chance encounter with the homeless statues


Head transplant.

Where do broken statues go? Taking to the streets it seems. We spotted them while taking a road trip for the day. There they were. All huddled together around a closed shop. Their fate unknown, except that they were no longer wanted at their original location. We stopped. Walked around. Saw. Captured. Wondered. Only to leave with a few memories of abandoned objects.

Leaning for support.

The contrast.

Disintegration.

Tenderness.

Mercy.

Dust to dust...

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On the road to Cu Chi and the hidden sights of the countryside

I had sat aside time for another day trip. Planning to go to Tay Ninh, however, I had to cut my trip short and keep it within half a day.

A half day doesn’t sound a lot. Only a couple of hours. If you live in London, less than two and half hours will take you to Paris by the Eurostar. I cannot claim to have crossed into another country during my little excursion, I did feel I crossed into another world.

For those of you that arrive to Saigon for the first time, you will be surprised of the modern cityscape, the number of luxury stores and not to mention the chauffeur driven luxury cars that ply the streets with businessmen and businesswomen. Saigon is an extreme side of Vietnam, it highlights the progress, the ambitions and the drive for success and the Saigonese are not shy to show off their success once obtained.

The countryside, as you can guess, is on the opposite side of what you experience in Saigon.

Once I was heading in the direction of Cu Chi I decided it was time to “get lost”. I turned off the main road and started riding down narrow countryside roads until I reached a church next to a market.

Church by the market.

Detail of the church. Note the statues.

Riding along quiet countryside roads with blue sky and sunshine is pure bliss. Passing paddy fields and the odd factory. Discovering the contrast within the landscape.

Paddy field and factory building in the distance.

Traffic safety billboard that has not been updated for some time.

Paddy field marker.

Turbo charged fields.

After the paddy fields I tried another side road, or rather, a track as there was no proper road, only dirt. Houses at the countryside are as far as you can get from the city houses and apartment buildings. People still do not lock their doors. They keep dogs that barks when you go by. Hardly any strangers take this road. At the end I reached the paddy fields. The farmers gave me a quick look and carried on as before. Work comes first.

Typical countryside farm house.

End of the road and the start of the paddy fields.

Man and his shovel.

Man and his machine.

It's no Rolls Royce, but for the farmer it is worth its weight in gold.

Cu Chi. Famous for its tunnel network. Tourists are arriving every day by bus. Google “Cu Chi” and you will get the odd tourist posing in the tunnels. I didn’t venture there. I continued on my motorbike until I found a memorial placed next to a flyover and roundabout. The monument had a connecting park lot with vendors resting in the shade, playing cards. A few armored vehicles were displayed. A brief walkabout and a couple of lottery tickets later I decided to head back to Saigon. Seeing a peaceful church, paddy fields and war remnants I thought I had seen enough contrast from the countryside, but, just as you think you have seen it all, Vietnam surprises you again.

War memorial in Cu Chi.

Workers taking advantage of the rotor blade shade.

Tank and pagoda.

Taking a direct hit.

Detail.

I had to turn back. It was almost too good to be true. Statue of Liberty. In Vietnam. In a field full of animals. Not any kind of animals, statues of animals. Filling the field. Liberation in Cu Chi.

The call of the wild.

Stampede.

Crouching tiger.

Wild horses and a grazing cow.

Statue of Liberty.

As I was heading back I spotted another statue. A Buddha. Normality restored.

Buddha by the roadside.

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Only skin deep…

In free fall

July was truly a roller coaster. Pulled two teeth. Definitely downwards. Going on an amazing road trip. Definitely up. Having a motorbike accident on a location shoot in Saigon. Ouch, that’s down. I went down. Got hit by another bike while I was turning. We were doing b-roll for a corporate movie, no stunts planned or intended. Moving from location to location by bike. Only one more location to go and I went down. Of course, this was also the day when I had accidentally put on flip flops instead of shoes.

Flip flops can be good for your feet when you live in a hot, tropical climate as you need to let your feet breathe. However, people familiar with the term Saigon kiss, will know that not all hot things in life are good for you. As I tipped over, video tripod and camera back pack pulling me to the ground, I managed to counter balance on one leg, ending up in a 45 degree position. My right leg was smooching the exhaust pipe as the other bike locked it down into a a very hot embrace.

The police came cruising by. Looked at the scene, then left. The guys that rammed me had already taken off as I was the one with damages and not them. So I stood there, getting an overview and made way for the seafood stall at the roadside. They were kind enough to give me a large chunk of ice. Refused my intention to pay for the ice. I applied it to the spot. The outer skin was burned. My shooting partner was kind enough to help arrange a bag with ice and with that applied to my heel, I set off on the bike. This time homewards to drop off the gear and head for the hospital.

It has taken over a month to get my foot back to normal. I can now walk again. Run again. Basically move normally again. Getting my good mood back. Second degree burn for sure. Documented. Turning something that I rather not experience again into something more visually interesting. Preserving memory in form of a still life photograph.

Skin deep beauty or fried flesh, I leave it to you to decide:

A study on black, still life of skin.

A study on black, still life of skin.

A study on black, still life of skin.

A study on black, still life of skin.

A study on black, still life of skin.

A study on white, still life of skin.

Thick skin indeed.

Rebuilding work in progress.

To heal a heel.

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Pure bliss (Part IV)

The buffalo boy in the field with red flag.

Just turned off the main road and heading towards Da Lat. Small country road, sun is shining, breeze is flowing as we ride along and are enjoying the road to ourselves. Pure bliss. Simply put. No more trucks and buses and exhaust fumes. Only the sound of our bike humming along the road. This would turn out to be the best part of the trip, and we made sure to enjoy it.

Needless to say, we never made it to Da Lat in time for a late lunch, we got there in time for a late dinner. After traveling on decent country roads, we hit the moon, literally. Several kilometers of craters, deep enough to topple vehicles made me train for a motocross license. The locals did indeed outrun us, but we gave them our best performance and hold our way for awhile. Until we spotted a photo opportunity and let our racing desires subside, as we rather start capturing that something we could keep instead of an imaginary motocross trophy. Never going get to splash with those champagne bottles anyway.

Driving to Da Lat equals scaling mountains. No matter how many times we thought that this would be it, we faced another upward heading curve. Zig zagging our way to the top and just behind a rain shower. Newly wet asphalt on narrow roads that we thought could only hold motorbikes until proven wrong by a car. How they do it is beyond our understanding of driving principles and physics. What we would consider reasonable road space for a car is not what the locals need to have. For instance, when a car takes the motorbike lane on Saigon bridge due to traffic jam, I thought I had seen it all. I was wrong. Never stop learning. In Vietnam, you get surprised everyday.

We caught up with the rain close to Da Lat. It was a very cool encounter. By the time we reached Da Lat, it was already dark. Found a cafe and ordered hot coffee and food. We were a bit worried. Our plan was to ride down from Da Lat after lunch time and still have daylight. Now it was raining outside and dark. I still had to be back for my dental follow up the next day.

Plan B, get some sleep before hitting the road again. First guesthouse we asked was already full. We only needed a room for a few hours we pleaded. A phone call was placed and we were told to follow. Short ride to another guesthouse and we could have a room. A hot shower and two hours sleep later we were again ready for the next stage. Donning the raincoat and heading out in the wet darkness. Cameras already put away. We took our last shot just before the rain hit us on the way up to Da Lat. The cameras stayed stowed away until we reached Saigon.

The ride at night was a once in a lifetime experience and we lived to tell the tale. The story I told in part I sums it up. We kept going from 10 pm until 4 am. We were still not down from the mountain. Instead, we had parked at a pagoda, next to a small waterfall. Somebody was up to serve us coffee and some snack. We drank and ate. Then, we both fell asleep, hugging our backpacks as we sat on the concrete benches facing each other. For the next hour we drifted back and forth from half asleep to asleep to semi awake. At 5 am, the crack of dawn, we mounted our bike again and continued our decent. Our vision vastly improved with the morning rays.

When we came down from the mountain, rows of repair shops on both sides of the road greeted us as well as a petrol station that was open. I forgot to mention that we had been running low on fuel twice and both times we had managed to find a station. This was the second time.

Pushing ahead and seeing the roadside coming alive. People opening their stalls, patrons having their breakfast, children on their way to school. It was strange to emerge from the darkness of the mountains and finding all the hustle and bustle in the sun light. Contrast. Our tiredness replaced with happiness for having survived the night.

The rest of the ride went smoothly and we arrived at 10 am in Saigon. Our faces covered in black grime from the road and I had a sunburned lip that had swollen to three times its normal size, causing laughter among all my friends. Small price to pay for a brilliant trip. Saigon-Hanoi trip is wish listed.

Enjoy the images from the coast until the hills of Da Lat:

View from the road.

Boy along the roadside.

One of many encounters with the herd along the road.

The herd and the herdsman.

Another herd coming up the hill.

The young boy was camera shy. He had been riding until we stopped and photographed.

Ordinary house by the roadside.

One of the few trucks we encountered on the road that day.

Steep hills ahead.

Yet another typical house by the roadside.

The white long ledge is actually a water reservoir.

Perfect riding conditions. Straight road ahead. Not to mention the tall and straight standing trees.

A coffee break is always welcome.

Not to mention a couple of rounds with Tra Da, iced tea.

The view from our table, the motorbike repair shop. A bucket full of tools and an air compressor next to.

A happy boy, his toy car and his herd to follow.

The herd.

The boy and the herd are leaving while a relative of the cafe owner is lounging in the hammock.

View from the road.

Back on the road. View from the bridge.

Collecting stones from the riverbank.

Closer view of the stone collector.

Loading up the cart with stones.

The next bridge we encountered. A walk bridge. Or so we thought.

Until we saw a tractor going across.

Being curious about the small road, we found the entrance, right next to the lush jungle.

Facing the bridge.

 

Detail from the bridge.

Next to the trail, behind a house that had a tree growing up from the inside, we spotted a small child's grave.

A lone tree.

Zig zag. All afternoon we ascended. Curve by curve.

Worker repairing the generator for the jack hammer.

Sitting on a rock, flip flops on, no googles and jack hammer in hand, the young boy is working.

Below the excavator is digging under the direction of the pink shirted supervisor.

The road at its narrowest. Buses still go through.

Reaching the roadside stalls at a popular viewing spot. The bus has just past the narrow road stretch.

Another bus heading downwards. Further up we encountered guarded barrier. The road closes at night as it has no road lights.

The stalls, awaiting customers.

Sign indicating bathroom. Climb over the ledge and do your bidding. Mind your foothold.

Tools of the trade.

Tradition still prevails.

 

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A new dawn in Nha Trang (Part III)

We had made it to Nha Trang. 14 hours on the road. Found a nice hotel to treat ourselves to a good night sleep before heading off the next day. Been informed that a potential client wanted to meet up in the morning since they have heard we would be up there. 8 am meeting at Diamond Bay Resort. The very place that hosted Miss Universe in 2008.

On the road and camera ready.

We had breakfast first. Then checked out. Collected the bike. Put our helmets on. Looked at each other and thought: “Are we really going to this again today?” Mind over body contest. Mind voted yes, buttocks screamed no. Mind won. First thing that got changed on the bike upon return was the suspension system.

Nha Trang signage.

We were on the road again. Passed the Nha Trang sign, Hollywood style inspired, but not when it came to size. We abstained from climbing and headed on for our meeting. Arrived on time. Got a tour of the vast premises. Size did indeed matter here. When you have a banquet hall capacity of 1200 people, you have sized up. Super-size.

Vintage car at Diamond Bay Resort.

Would love to have said we got a tour around in the vintage car, however, it is only for decoration. We took one of the battery powered carts, or rather mini buses, as they were super sized too.

View from the golf practice range.

If I played golf, this would be a place for me to practice my swing. Where else can you enjoy a beautiful view and try to get your ball into the different nets floating in the water, each with their own distance marker. Don’t feel guilty if you miss, they have the whole area covered and sweep up today’s catch of golfballs when you are back at the club house for an afternoon refreshment, before taking the super sized buggy back to your apartment or villa.

Continuing the road trip.

We got back on the road. Thought we could make it to Da Lat for lunch. But first we wanted to enjoy the seaside view from the road as we headed down the peninsula to find our road that would take us Da Lat.

Beautiful day, blue sky, sunshine and not a rain cloud in sight. We were happy and our buttocks so too by the smooth road conditions.

View from the road.

Riding uphill along the coastline.

We were riding uphill until we found a tourist viewing spot. Pulled over and parked. Getting off the bike took longer and longer for each stop as well as the stretching exercises. Here we were. Overlooking the sea.

At the view point.

Unfortunately, spending money on new road, proper parking area and an advertising billboard, somebody had decided that litter bins were not necessary. We were walking on litter. Shaking our heads. Spoiling a beautiful experience with bad habits. It is a nation wide problem. The more popular the road, the more litter you find next to it.

Stepping on litter.

Even the duster gave up...

Turning day into night helps ignoring the foreground.

Sitting behind, camera ready, I started photographing the road experience. Tried to record some video, only to find out that even when you set your camera to overflow when you have dual cards, only still shots are overflowing, not video. Good to know on a private trip and not on a paid assignment.

Watering the roadside.

Roadblock with an advertising message to call for road side assistance written on the tires.

Old style truck, still going strong.

We stopped again when we spotted a couple of fishing boats. Ventured down to the beach. Same issue. Litter.

Fishing boats.

A closer look.

Beach with litter.

Got our shots and kept going until we found a cemetery. By the roadside. Life and death. Side by side.

Graveyard.

Closer view.

Different view.

Graveyard by the roadside.

Our last stop before embarking on the road to Da Lat, too late for lunch, however, we still were thinking late lunch would be possible. How wrong we would be. More to come in Part IV, the final post from the trip.

Saltlake.

Saltlake.

On the road to Da Lat.

 

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Ride, drink and shoot (Part II)

That’s what we did. Like a British fox hunting party we set out and chased something. That something cannot be easily explained. We had no dogs to help us. They were all at home, barking at any creature that entered the grounds. No use to us. Not that we were fox hunting anyway.

We were hunting for photographic opportunities. For that something peculiar that makes you stop and think “Hey, this is worthy of an exposure.”

While we were hunting, not only our bike drank its fill, often more than one tank a day, we also needed our coffee stops too. Our buttocks thanked us after spending hours in the saddle on our motorised horse.

Coffee break. Drip style.

All fuelled up, we hit the road again. The hunt was on.

Billboards are good targets. If they do not contain own work, then an old hand painted billboard will do very well. Especially detail shots. Ride, drink and shoot. Rinse and repeat.

Hand painted billboard.

Detail from billboard.

Next up, when we were crossing a bridge, we spotted a couple of boys riding a cart in the river below. The buffalo boys got captured by our cameras and we waved them goodbye and continued our journey.

The Buffalo Boys, montage.

It didn’t take us long to find ourselves another buffalo. Tied up, roadside to graze on the nearby grass and leaves. We pulled over and got camera ready. Couple of frames and a few poses later, the minder came over and untied the buffalo. Photo session over. We got on our bike again and watched in our extended side view mirrors that the buffalo was allowed out to graze again. Time for us to find new pastures.

Buffalo by the road.

Windmills. Rotating blades. Farm land. We pulled over. Locked the bike and ventured down the hill. Locking the steering makes it trickier for someone to push the bike away. On a previous road trip we had parked the bike and ventured around 100 meters away on foot when we spotted somebody riding past, then stopping and back tracking to our bike. Our photo session was immediately cut short and we started walking back. Upon seeing us returning, the man started walking back to his own bike and left. “What was his purpose?”, you may ask. Most likely to take any part that was easily removable so he could sell it.

It is normal to see cars missing windscreen wipers, side view mirrors, even ornaments as they can fetch a price. I had once somebody trying to unscrew the front disc brake on my motorbike. Others have had valuable belongings stolen from their trunks. The list goes on and on.

Windmill farm.

Landscape.

Flower, detail.

Bus going passed.

Our proud work horse, resting by the roadside.

Dinner time. Just as with lunch time, we found another pagoda. This time we had beautiful afternoon light and off we went again, camera in hand, to capture that something again. Pure bliss.

Text on wall by the entrance.

At the entrance.

Greeted by the first arrangement.

Close up.

The old bell.

The second arrangement.

 

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Break of dawn and barking dogs (Part I)

Road trip. Those are the magic words. Bringing a smile to my face as I splash water in my face. Been up since 4 am. SMS’ed James to see if he really would make it at 5 am. “Yes”, he texted back. That’s what a road trip will do for you. Even more so when bundled together with photography. Just ask my clients, they know the drill. If they want to be there for all the shots, they have to get up early. That’s the great thing of most of my clients, they do share the same passion of getting the best out of every situation.

Typical travel assignment for a resort involves getting there the day before, then waking up at 4 am to make sure we will capture the sunrise before heading for breakfast. Then more work until lunch. Then more until late dinner. Then some night shots if the conditions are good. Sometimes it means waiting until 11.30 pm for the moon to move into the right spot before hitting the sack only to repeat the the procedure the next day. Throw in some time to transfer files and back up to multiple drives and you soon find yourself on 3-4 hours sleep a day. Still would do it again.

5 am and the dogs are barking. Right. Time to get the bike on the road. James and I are sharing one bike. A Yamaha Nouvo, 125 cc and with two equally tall foreigners with over 160 kg combined weight. Off we go. Decide to get as much milage as possible before a breakfast stop. We have been on this road before. We are hungry for new locations and speed past previous stopping spots.

The bike has just been serviced. New gear oil, new motor oil. New, extended side mirrors to provide better view than the original ones. New tires, tubeless, so not to worry too much about getting flat tires. A rain cover for the seat, works brilliant when you park the bike in the hot sun as it prevents you from frying your behind when you get on after a rest. Yamaha ought to sponsor us for all our praise of their bike as it took us safely from Saigon to Nha Trang, then Nha Trang to Da Lat before back to Saigon. A true work horse.

First stop for breakfast. A petrol station with an adjacent restaurant. We ordered some coffee and food. Once we started photographing their bonsai tree, we were approached by the man of the house, proudly explaining details of the tree and that it was a certain breed. My Vietnamese skills could not keep up with all the details, however, that the tree received his love and attention, there was no doubt about it.

Bonsai tree at restaurant.

We pushed fast ahead, well, fast for us, but not for the trucks and cars speeding past us. The law of the road. Smaller vehicles, if they want to survive, give way for bigger ones. The purchase of extended side mirrors was a direct consequence to this. Having side view mirrors were not common a few years back, nor were helmets, until they enforced the law late 2007. When buying my first motorbike I had to insist that they put on the side view mirrors.

Having side view mirrors is one thing, making use of them is another. Hence the constant use of horns to warn people in front. As the honking intensifies your chances of survival are getting slimmer unless immediate evasive action is taken. Consider yourself lucky if they do warn you. At night they don’t think anybody will be crazy enough to drive on the roads and no horns are used at all. Something we discovered on our way down from Da Lat at night. Quite an experience.

We were traveling on a section without street lights. I was on lookout behind. James was riding and looking out for potholes in the front. If we hit one of the deeper potholes we would go down for sure. Slow speed necessary. Add rain to the weather conditions. On a positive note, we had a bit of moonlight in between the rain showers.

Roughly every five seconds I would glance over my shoulder and look for incoming lights. Once spotted, I yelled incoming and James started the evasive manoeuvre. Slowing down the bike to almost walking speed, riding along the road shoulder as far as the asphalt reached.

This we did throughout the night from around 11 pm when we left Da Lat until 4 am in the morning, when we were too exhausted to go on and had a nap at a road side pagoda.

That’s how we made it through without any scratches, because when you are seeing incoming lights just after you have passed a long curve, that means they will catch up with you soon. Three buses, at full speed, two buses overtaking the slowest one, filled the entire road, going at 80 km+, leaving us very little space and out from the darkness in front of us was a massive pile of gravel, intended for road work and blocking our way forward. We came to a holt. The slowest bus drove past around 15 cm from my elbow. They did not notice us at all, nor did their sleeping passengers. We continued our journey after acknowledging that our defensive driving system actually worked.

All that came later in our trip. Now, we did not know what would be in store for us, only hoping for better weather as we had encountered quite a few rain showers. Taking the coastal route to Nha Trang, first stop would be Phan Thiet where we planned to lunch. Getting closer, we had to do a U-turn and back track as I spotted it too late. A billboard advertising a resort. Not any billboard and any resort. This was Sea Links Beach Hotel, a client of mine and they used the panorama image I took. Always a joy to see your own work printed big. Definitely worth a stop.

Billboard for Sea Links Beach Hotel.

Lunch time. We had reached Phan Thiet and ordered some lunch. “No warm liquid or food. Also, remember not to chew with your front dentures.” The dentist’s instructions. Great. Ice drinks and waiting for the food to cool down. Suddenly I realised I could qualify as a member of the slow food movement.

Lunch consumed and we headed out of town. We had set our sights on a pagoda that we wanted to photograph. James and I have a tendency to stop at pagodas on our road trips. They are fascinating worlds on their own. Always butterflies flying around. A touch of nature within the city. We parked the bike and started our stroll, heading in different directions for only to compare our captures later over a cup of coffee. Here are some of the images that made my edit, enjoy!

From the outside looking in.

Entering the first arrangement.

Detail image.

A closer look.

The entrance to the pagoda.

Second arrangement.

Detail.

Walking to the back of the pagoda.

Discovering a cemetery.

Walking to the front gate with the lotus pond.

Decide that the world can sometimes be better viewed in black and white.

Detail from the pond.

Detail from the pond with a water drop.

Detail from the pond.

Detail from the pond.

 

Detail from the pond.

 

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Chasing the morning light along Saigon river

This is what you get by getting up early. Beautiful light. The road to yourself. Yes, it is a Sunday morning. Hardly any traffic. Fast forward 24 hours and you have the traffic jams. Sunday is a day of rest in most countries. Rest can be many things. It can be a stay in bed longer day or a day by the poolside or home doing nothing day. To me, nothing is more refreshing than to jump on the bike, cameras loaded and chase the good light. A perfect start of a very relaxing Sunday, or shall we say, Fun day.

The city looks peaceful from Thu Thiem bridge. First stop.

The red gate in District 2 and a few minutes patience.

Riverside view of Saigon skyline.

Red gate close up and the new Bitexco Financial Tower.

Closer view of the Bitexco Financial Tower.

From the peaceful start and stroll through the green scenery along the waterways, you suddenly notice that the country never stand still. Builders are at work. Like yin and yang, beauty and the beast, two takes on the scenery. Enjoy the industrial age on a Sunday morning!

Detail from work site.

Smoke fills the air.

Cranes at the docks.

Cleared land for development with the cranes in the background.

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XO Tours, your two-wheeled experience of the streets of Saigon

XO Tours branded motorbike.

XO stands for Xe Om, the name for motorbike taxis. However, XO Tours riders are far from your typical guy on the corner motorbike taxi. Mr Tung is the man behind the new tour concept of letting female guides dressed in traditional Vietnamese dress, Ao Dai, take tourists around for a spin.

People arriving to Saigon for the first time are easily overwhelmed by the traffic. I remember when I arrived for the first time, the endless streams of motorbikes. I was advised to take a taxi and get my bearings before attempting to be a local and hire a motorbike taxi, a xe om.

As they say “When in Rome…”. I did, within the next few weeks of my arrival, try out the local motorbike taxis. Some were careful riders, others, they had a secret wish for being a formula one driver, leaving you sweating after a ride filled with anxiousness and close calls. I bought my own bike.

The Vietnamese family that I stayed with at that time were convinced I would have accidents and quickly taught me the words to say sorry before letting me out of the gates on my bike. Knock on wood, I still haven’t caused a road accident. I have been victim of road accidents and that is easy in a city where people do not respect traffic rules and regulations.

However, I was fortunate enough to provide images for XO Tours and I believe Tung has a really good concept on his hands by letting tourists explore the city on wheels safely. Read more about it on their website.

Passing the Opera house.

Passing Ben Thanh market.

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Saigon Scooter Centre’s annual Charity Run 2010

This year was the fifth anniversary of the Charity Run event organized by Saigon Scooter Centre. My first time to attend. The event raises money for charity and the full information can be accessed here.

This will be the longest blog post in terms of images. Take a look and get a feel of the day. Truly worth experiencing again. Need to get a proper scooter first. Enjoy!

Morning registration.

Mounting the official banner for the bikes.

A girl and her scooter... and her spectators.

Changing into official T-Shirts the male model way.

You show your image and I take yours.

Official sticker proudly displayed.

Custom built ride of the day. Patrick got it ready the day before. Brakes installed during breakfast.

Get your Santa-on-Wheels portrait. Two phones at the time.

@Caligarn during breakfast.

Patrick, the organiser and owner of Saigon Scooter Centre on the left.

Mr 720, aka @vietnam720, in action.

Ho Chi Minh City's District 12 Motorbike Club

Club members unite.

One-two-three-smile!

Detail of scooter with banner mounted in front.

The entrance banner.

Mr Union Jack.

Scooters.

Kick off with @Caligarn aiming for the lead.

It's all on video! DVD from the day available from Saigon Scooter Centre.

Scooter down. Still all good. Thumbs up!

That's how we roll!

Short stop to let people catch up. All documented.

Camera man in action. Police in action. Riders in action.

Setting off! Break over.

Patrick on his custom bike.

Pitstop before having lunch at the resort.

All parked and ready for lunch.

Details.

One-Two-Three-Smile!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

Time to go. Lunch done.

Lunch over. Next stage!

Getting to the bikes and off to the next location.

Road is filling up.

Not only for scooters.

Arriving at the Pagoda and orphanage.

Santa-on-Wheels backdrop in place.

Banner with all the sponsor logos. We are the one with a red camera.

One-Two-Three-Smile!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

It's Vespa alright.

Children at the orphanage getting gifts.

A candy moment.

All the candy in my world.

The water gun game. Shoot'em down.

Free rides for all.

Let's ride!

Another round please.

Scooter.

One-Two-Three-Smile!

The arrival of Santa!

Santa is here!

It's Christmas gift time!

One of the children at the orphanage to see Santa.

Time to leave!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

Patrick arriving at the party directly from the road.

One-Two-Three-Smile!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

The stage with DJ and projector showing previous year's run.

The band!

One-Two-Three-Smile!

Yes! I won! I'm so lucky, lucky!

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Moto Moto!

In Vietnam a moto is a motorbike. In Zambia, they have the Moto Moto Museum. To them, Moto Moto is Fire Fire. Moto is also a nickname for Motorola. You have Moto Boy from Sweden. The Urban Moto magazine, the Moto programming language, another Moto Museum and Mr. Moto, the secret agent.

China are famous for The Great Wall and lately, its Great Firewall, as well as its many bicycles and Vietnam is equally renowned for its motorbike population. Bicycles are endangered in Asia according to this research. Even the cyclo’s are deminishing in numbers and more tourists are seen using their services than locals. Motorbikes in Vietnam have been limited at 150 cc until 2007. Thanks to the WTO agreement, larger capacity bikes are now part of the traffic, for better or worse. One thing is certain, the traffic jams are increasing and traveling in District 1, the Central Business District (CBD), takes longer time. A motorbike can still get around faster than a car though.

In a city where you can see Bentley’s cruising the street, a dedicated Porsche showroom in Phu My Hung, it was only natural to get some big name motorbikes. Enter Ducati. We got the honor of capturing the images needed for their launch.

Ducati Vietnam's brand ambassador Johnny Tri Nguyen.

Ducati Vietnam's brand ambassador Johnny Tri Nguyen

Helmets are finally mandatory and have been so for some time. Gone are the days you could jump on your bike and let the hair flow in the wind and regret not having a helmet when a drunk driver came the opposite way and knocked you down. At least, today when the drunk driver comes, you and your head have a much better chance of survival.

I am strong advocate of helmets. I use a helmet every time I ride a bike. I had in the past an ugly bicycle accident that I survived solely by wearing a helmet. In Vietnam it is not a question of “if you have had an accident” but “how many have you had”. People disrespect the traffic laws and yesterday evening, on the way home, I travelled in the motorbike lane on Saigon bridge. It is a one way lane. Suddenly motorbikes in front of me started to swerve to the side and I saw the headlights of another motorbike coming towards me at high speed. Somebody had taken a short cut and went the wrong way. It happens everyday.

There is an organisation, Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, that manufactures safe helmets. I buy my helmets from them. Another client of mine, Sophie Paris Vietnam, have their own branded helmets for sale, as seen below.

We photographed the bike and the models in studio and superimposed the background in Photoshop. Safest way to work while it is official rain season.

One of our latest assignments, for Castrol motorbike oil, was recently put on display on a billboard.

Castrol billboard in Ho Chi Minh City.

The artwork for Castrol.

From motorbike to motorbike helmets to motorbike oil it is only suitable to end it with motorbike parts. Saigon Scooter Centre is everything you need about vintage scooters and we are photographing their products. Item by item. Part by part. Full circle.

Product photography for Saigon Scooter Centre.

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The masked riders of Saigon’s streets.

One of Saigon's masked riders stopped for texting, actually a rare, but welcomed sight, as the majority multi-tasks while riding.

Motorbikes are plentiful in Saigon. Over 4 millions according to travelers websites, and in 2000 alone, 1.4 million units were produced locally and sold. According to a survey from 2008, 26 million vehicles are registered in Vietnam, 95% of them are motorbikes. Over 9000 new motorbike registrations daily.

An Arizona cowboy. Digital ID: 1610053. New York Public Library

The numbers are just numbers until you meet the herd. Unlike the masked riders of the Old Wild West, riders of the East have less space and more riders and faster means of transportations. The Old West could be lawless and preach the “survival for the fittest” mantra and it has more or less not changed here.

Bikes have to give way for bigger vehicles and bus drivers are regularly referred to as “Devils on wheels” and don’t even start talking about lorry drivers. With horns that blow you off the road if you are lucky or under the wheels when you are not.

Late 2007, the Vietnamese government made the second attempt at introducing mandatory helmets for all motorbike riders. The first attempt failed within the cities as people rather paid the fine than to “destroy their fashionable look” by wearing helmets. The second attempt was better, however, the law had to later be amended to include reference to how the strap should be secured as many simply put the helmet on when they noticed the traffic police. Others were riding with the strap too loose, and it is still common to see riders stop to pick up their helmets as they flew off their heads while riding at higher speed on the highway.

Despite getting people to wear helmets and the efforts to get them to wear them correctly, too many have opted for sub-standard helmets that you can pick up for around US$2 and upwards. 80% of helmets in circulation are reported to fail standards.

Some still refuse to wear them at all as seen below.

Still refusing to wear a helmet while riding a motorbike.

All hooded up. Hoods are always in fashion amongst bike riders, especially female, as hoods help them to cover up from the sun. Hoods with text/lettering on can be of endless amusement due to numerous spelling mistakes and/or subject matter. Ignorance can be bliss sometimes and the topic is worthy of its own blog post.

Hooding up.

Wearing a hood with English text.

Despite the hot climate, gloves are being used to shield the sun rays. Even boys can be seen riding with their wrists turned upwards to “minimize” their exposure and sometimes people ride with umbrellas as shield. Colourful socks worn in flip-flops are also part of the sun protection kit.

Layered head wear, colorful socks and hand gloves, all set to combat sun rays.

The habit of stopping, sometimes on the pavement in order to text or call, is picking up, especially if you have an expensive phone. Yes, the majority of riders are still using their phone while riding, however, others can easily ride up alongside and snatch the phone. Once you have had one or a few phones stolen, you start thinking security and for optimal security, you park on the pavement.

Optimal security stance, texting on pavement.

An unwritten rule it seems, the following rider combinations are commonly used. Single riders, self explanatory. Dual riders, the obvious options: two females or two males. Then, when you start mixing, you will notice, male rider and female passenger, more or less all the time. The most typical exception to spot in District 1, female rider and expat male passenger, either newly arrived or too scared to ride.

Following the unwritten rule, male motorbike rider with female passenger.

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Packed like sardines as accidents do happen

Traffic jam

The image above was captured on the road from Phu My Hung heading towards district 4. A motorbike carrying building bricks had slammed into a SUV and consequently fell on the road, breaking most of the bricks. Police at the scene filling in forms while the traffic jam is building up as the SUV was parked in the bike lane and the motorbike was dragged onto the pavement. One single accident and the cars piled up a few kilometers behind. Welcome to the fragility of Saigon’s road infrastructure.

Road accident

The man with the tie ran red light and tried to get in front of the oncoming traffic but got hit just before he made it. Accidents like these happens every day. Hit and run. Only when the bikes or the riders sustain considerable damage they will involve the traffic police. In this case, the business man got on his bike and drove off with a broken plastic cover and bruised ego. All done in less than two minutes.

Future investment, when parents fail.

As a parent myself, it both saddens me and angers me when I see parents taking children on motorbikes without helmets. In this case, the father is wearing the helmet while his son is not. Even at slow speed, a head impact can be lethal. I know that first hand. Bike riding on a racing bicycle at around 35-40 km an hour, my tires tripped me up on a cobblestoned road and I went head first hitting the road surface. A 1 cm imprint on the helmet from the stones, fractured neck, split lip and broken teeth. Was told by the doctor that stitched me up that the helmet was the only reason I was still alive. A good helmet is priceless.

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Arriving in Vietnam and facing the traffic

Facing the traffic.

Most people, when asked, would answer that the traffic mayhem that you experience on a daily basis leaves an impression, for better or worse. In the central business district, foreign pedestrians can be observed breaking out in panic and sprinting in hordes across the zebra crossings. Not for the faint hearted indeed.

There are a few simple rules to obey and you will live to cross the street and tell the tale.

First of all, do not panic and run. Make sure the oncoming riders are seeing you before moving forwards and when moving, move slowly and steadily and soon you will be on the other side in one piece.

I have got the height to be easily spotted, but for others, especially children, waving hands or umbrellas help too. I have seen blind beggars cross the street slowly by blowing a whistle every few seconds by themselves.

To sum up:

  • Make sure you are noticed.
  • Progress slowly.
  • Keep eyes on traffic at all times.
  • Move steadily and in a predictable route.

The motorbike riders will see you and avoid you. Sudden movements increases the chances of an accident.

Man crossing the street.

I went to one of Saigon’s bus stations and found a street side cafe, front row view to the mayhem as the buses arrived faster than the planes at Heathrow airport. Ordered a “ca phe sua da”, my favourite coffee, I find second to none when you get the right blend.

Back to the chaos. Patience and timing. Motorbikes are passing by and you will sometimes only get one shot at it before the moment has gone. Below is the result of a morning spent at front row view, bus station.

Woman with child talking on mobile phone.

Family about to cross the street.

Student crossing the road.

Woman just arrived to the city.

Carefully crossing the road, always watch the oncoming traffic.

Dad and son waiting.

Young boy watching.

Stretching after a long trip.

Family crossing.

Modern versus traditional clothes style.

Arriving in the city.

Roadside grooming. The real reason why motorbikes got mirrors.

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