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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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Vietnam’s Liberation Day and the beach holiday to Mui Ne

Beach time

End of April and beginning of May have two public holidays here in Vietnam. 30th April is the liberation day, or Victory Day as it is also referred to, and 1st of May is the International Labour Day. This year, those days fell on a Monday and Tuesday respectively. A very long weekend indeed, and Tet holiday-like queues were expected. The People’s Army Newspaper wrote that public transportation had run out of tickets prior the holiday and that the train system alone, had to accommodate twice the amount of travelers for the holiday. Last year’s holiday had 211 reported traffic accidents with 172 fatalities over a 4 day period. The traffic police dealt with 44,200 traffic violations and the State collected US$ 548,000 in fines only for those four days.

With that as backdrop we set out on the Saturday 28th, heading for Mui Ne and the beach, without any reservations. The day before I had celebrated my double 20 day with family and was still in denial that I have entered a new era. Starting my age with the cipher 3 was already tough enough and now the cipher 4. Troi oi! or Oh My God, as they say in Vietnamese.

Anyhow, we made it safely to the beach, leaving Saigon after lunch time and arriving in the late evening. Found a hotel within reasonable time and woke up to a wonderful day, breakfast at 6am. Then the beach before hitting the pool before checking out at 12. Luggage in the car and off for lunch. Then the hunt started. This time it took much longer. No vacancy was the only answer until we ventured further down the coast.

First opening did not serve breakfast, did not have a pool and the beach was hidden by high tide. Second place did have beach access but the privately owned place with the owner sitting bare chested with his drinking buddies and playing cards did not fit in with a family with small kids. And on we went. Three times lucky as they say. Third stop had breakfast, had a pool and proper beach access. We checked in and left for dinner. Next day was a repeat of the first day. Breakfast, beach and then pool. Pure bliss. Checked out at noon and headed for lunch. Afterwards, a sightseeing drive along the coast before heading back to Saigon.

Here are a few shots I managed to squeeze in during the long weekend. Enjoy!

Beach view

Building sand castles

Enjoying the afternoon sunset

Walking the dog

Road stop

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Monkey madness

Monkey I

On location deep inside the Mekong, we set up and photographed a storage room in a small village. It was the main distribution centre in the area. In between shots as my assistants moved lights, I saw something next door. At first, I noticed the shafts of light coming in to what I believed was an empty storage room, however a small movement caught my attention.

A pet monkey was chained inside. I snapped a few shots before I got called at from outside and had to continue the assignment. A brief moment with a lasting impact. Assignment done, files delivered and I take a second look at the few frames I snapped. I edit them and start looking up animal websites and one article hits me, “The Perils of Keeping Monkeys as Pets”, where the author states that there is a 99.9 percent of creating a mentally disturbed animal if you try to keep them as pets.

“Primates are wild animals,” said Truitt of the Primate Rescue Center. “No amount of surgical mutilation, training, or beating will ever change that.”

Monkey II

Monkey III

Monkey IV

 

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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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Big Mountain, Cloud Lake, Miss Vung Tau and the Alpine Coaster

It is a Sunday, my parents are still in town, however, my mother decided to relax at the hotel while my dad, my son and I took a day trip to Vung Tau. The roads have improved, it took us 2 1/2 hours by car, average speed of 48 km/hr to reach Vung Tau, 120 km away. Still slow compared to the speedboat with an average of 1 hour 15 minutes travel time.

Station No 1 at Buffalo Island.

We drive straight to Station No 1, Buffalo Island. Park the car and board the cable car service. We are going to Big Mountain, 249 meters above the sea to visit Cloud Lake and say hello to Miss Vung Tau before undertaking the highlight of the trip, the Alpine Coaster. Racing downhill on Big Mountains slopes before being pulled back up again is great. Each trip gets done faster than the previous one. 30,000 VND or $2 per ride, but the joy is priceless.

It is cooler up here, more wind and you don’t feel the heat as much as you do at the beach. As all good things come to an end, we ride down for a late lunch, thereby extending the good life by enjoying Italian food, before starting the journey back.

Truly a great day out, enjoy the images:

Rearview. Leaving Station No 1 behind by the sea.

Arriving at Station No 2, Cloud Lake.

Panorama view from Cloud Lake restaurant.

Detail view.

Arriving at Cloud Lake, viewing the footbridge with a waterfall behind.

Behind the veil of water. Walking on a slippery footpath behind the waterfall.

Over view from Cloud Lake, with a 30 meter tall Buddha in the distance.

Closer view of the tall Buddha, no shoes allowed on the ground in front.

One of the statues by the footpath leading up to the Buddha.

Time to meet Miss Vung Tau at her stable.

Wheelbarrows left out to dry in the sun by the stables.

The Alpine Coaster tracks on Big Mountains hillside.

Departure time.

Leaving Station No 2 and Cloud Lake.

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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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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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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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To travel or not to travel

Travel it is. Sunday in Saigon. The normal routine ditched in favour for a trip to the seaside. To Vung Tau. Only 130 km away. Seems close by, until you hit the roads that are still undergoing renovation. Stretches of rigorous suspension testing and a few hours later we have arrived.

Clouds over Vung Tau

Quick Italian lunch by the seaside, watching the hydrofoils arriving and leaving and seeing the rain and thunderclouds pass by in the distance. Occasional lightings are seen.

Ocean view

At the beach.

Tian having fun.

Snails for snacks.

Then the beach. Tian is overjoyed and runs in and out of the water. A table and deck chairs are made available. Seafood and snails are served.

A different Sunday. Change is good.

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“What were the skies like when you were young?”

Rain clouds over Saigon

They went on forever

And they — when I

We lived in Arizona

And the skies always had little fluffy clouds

And they were long and clear

And there were lots of stars, at night

And when it rained it would all turn

It — they were beautiful

The most beautiful skies as a matter of fact

The sunsets were purple and red

And yellow and on fire

And the clouds would catch the colors everywhere

That’s — it’s neat

Because I used to look at them all the time

When I was little

You don’t see that

Layering different sounds on top of each other

Layering different sounds on top of each other

Little fluffy clouds

Little fluffy clouds and

Little fluffy clouds and

Little fluffy clouds and

You don’t see that

You might still see them in the desert

The most beautiful skies as a matter of fact

Purple and red

Purple and red and yellow and on fire

The Orb

One of my favourite songs and fitting in the sense that rains bring beautiful clouds, maybe not fluffy, but with texture. I had set aside the day for personal exploration, however, I got a last minute booking for the morning. By the time the morning session ended, lunchtime arrived and afterwards I set out for the road. Heavy, dark rain clouds was over the city. Option one, cancel and go back in again, option two, make the most of it. I always prefer to make the most of it, you never know what you can get.

Saigon skyline in the afternoon

I went around the city, took the new road to Phu My bridge and captured the skyline. The close up is a nice silhouette and when you pull back you see the heavy clouds, complete contrast and change of mood. From 200mm to 70mm does that.

Saigon skyline with rain clouds in the afternoon.

Onwards I went and by the time I reached the ferris wheel in Phu My Hung, the clouds had caught up with me and the rain came. Time for a coffee and watch the clouds go by.

Ferris wheel in Phu My Hung.

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A weekend of spiritual wellness for the photographic soul

What better start on the weekend to pay visits to pagodas and take in their atmosphere. Parking the motorbike in the courtyard and see people walking slowly without any haste is a welcomed relief from the traffic mayhem that goes on outside. First stop is the Jade Emperor Pagoda on 73 Mai Thi Luu street. Beautiful sunshine outside, however, once you move inside, the light falls off fast and even at a high ISO setting you will worry about potential camera shake and a tripod is highly recommended. Despite the technical challenge, it is possible to photograph handheld.

By the courtyard entrance of the Jade Emperor Pagoda

By the courtyard wall of the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Inside the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Inside the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Inside the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Close by, on 34 Vo Thi Sau street, we find the Tran Hung Dao Temple, and the parking attendants indicate the parking area for the motorbike that is right next to one of the offering furnaces. It doesn’t take long before the bike is completely covered in thin layer of white ash. Another challenge is light, or rather the lack of available light coming in to the temple, taking handheld photography to a higher level of steadiness exercise.

Detail from Tran Hung Dao Temple

Detail from Tran Hung Dao Temple

Final stop before lunchtime, Vinh Nghiem Pagoda on 339 Nam Ky Khoi Nghi street. On the premises there is a great vegetarian restaurant, Viet Chay, perfect place to end the half day tour.

Detail from Vinh Nghiem Pagoda

Detail from Vinh Nghiem Pagoda

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Roaming the roads and pathways with Papa Legba

At the gate

Saturday morning. Again we find ourselves at the gates of spiritual wandering, walking through and recalling Papa Legba. Legba.net was the domain name I owned while living in London. Somehow I only ended up keeping madsmonsen.com and now, I start recalling the master of roads and pathways, Papa Legba.

A boy had invited us in. Butterflies are flying around, tranquility fills the courtyard and a nun approached and greeted us with a smile. Permission to stroll around and photograph is granted. Even Buddha is greeting us with a smile as we walk around.

The smiling Buddha

Further back we found another statue being led by two elephants.

Statue in the backyard

And of course, a visit is never complete unless we do a proper close up of incense sticks.

Close up of incense sticks (joss sticks)

Overall, a great start on our journey to the Mekong. We have finally found the right direction, even a road atlas have been purchased in advance of the trip. We politely declined to stay for lunch as we wanted to reach Ben Tre within reasonable time and headed off on the road again.

Riding. Wind in our faces, sun shining strongly and thinking about Outrun. Stormy clouds were chasing us and we just managed to stay in front of them, thinking we had to get some milage between us. Panda made us stop. How could we miss a panda stop when we have a charming one saying “Hello!” in Vietnamese.

Hello Panda!

It was a quick “Hi & Bye!” with our newfound Panda friend. Time for us to get some lunch. Finding places that serves food is easy, but finding the right place to stop and eat is more difficult. How do we know where to stop? Easy, we do as the locals, we see which place got lots of customers and we also stop there. Works like a charm, food is always good. As we had just finished our meal, a bird vendor parked his motorbike outside, put a stick on the side to keep the bike from falling over and walked inside. Not sooner had he placed his supporting stick in the ground and we were out, cameras switched on and we got clickety-click-click on the birds. Got some birds nailed alright.

Inside looking out, bird in bird cage

The shadow birds

Off we went again. Stopped briefly at pagoda-in-construction site and ventured to the old grounds behind and found the tattooed tongue statue.

The tattooed tongue statue

That was the last pagoda stop for the day. Next up was bridges.

Bridges on the roadside to Ben Tre, Mekong area

Then waterways.

Fishing net by the riverside

Then another bridge.

Bridge across the river

Roads. Country side roads and crossroads. We took a right from the main road and never looked back. Just headed deeper and deeper and got a taste of off road riding with the bike. Forget about going here with a car. The pathway at some points barely supports one bike in width. Houses to the left, pathway in the middle and river to the right. Either pay a visit to a stranger or risk a bath when you meet another bike going the opposite way.

Country side road

A road shrine along the pathway and Papa Legba reoccured in my thoughts. Indeed a master of roads and crossroads.

Road shrine in the Mekong

Finally we found a larger road leading to the main road and we were again connected to the flow of buses, trucks, cars and motorbikes. From being off-line to be back on the grid again. Time to head back as daylight faded away. Most accidents take place after dark and extra vigilance is needed when traveling on the road. Darkness did not manage to prevent us from further capture. Our last shot for the day.

Full moon by the road side

As we headed closer to Saigon, more bikes were whizzing past us. Time to slow down as they start to race and we applied our brakes and let a young guy without helmet take off and disappear in the distance. No need to rush we told ourselves and rode on. A minute later we spotted the guy again. He lay motionless on the road next to his bike. 30 meters apart was the other guy and his bike. Two down. Just like that. Saturday night, a bit of bravado, giving full throttle and going from being king of the road to king of stupidity in a fraction of time. People gathered around the two and he started to move his head, must have been in full agony. There was nothing we could do to help at this point. We rode on. In silence.

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Deus ex machina

“A spiritual journey is good for the photographic soul” was the title from one of our previous road trips. The working title I had in my mind for this one was “Riding with Buddha”, however, looking through the images from the trip, it was changed to “Deus ex machina” or “God from the machine”. Still on the spiritual path of thoughts as “Riding with Buddha” is more a tale to tell than images to view.

We started the Saturday with a rendevouz at the zoo. Another project I am undertaking at the moment involves capturing the beauty of Vietnamese women for a charity book project. Using existing light (ambient) and no harsh shadows (i.e. direct sunlight) and photograph the women as they are. A separate blog post will follow on that.

However, once the two sessions were done, Jamie and I were ready to hit the road, except Jamie’s road atlas had been sent to Malaysia by mistake. Who needs a map when we can follow the signs we thought and off we went. Our plan was to travel to Ben Tre, in the Mekong Delta area. Plan A never happened as Plan B kicked in when we realized we had taken the wrong turn and saw Tay Ninh on the sign in front of us. Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai temple could do for the day.

Quick stop at the petrol station, can never be too careful, we always dread the thought of running out of petrol and verified our directions. “Turn back to the junction and take the highway or go straight and prepare to zig-zag on small roads.” Straight we went in search of photographic adventure and treasure we found. Little did I realize that what we captured here would be the blog post of today as what happened next gave birth to “Riding with Buddha”.

After our treasure hunt we continued and went looking for a restaurant. Lunch time is lunch time. No good to keep going on empty. “Stop, let’s head back, I need a shot of that one!”, Jamie exclaimed. A bicycle vendor with various Buddha statues for sale had taken a stand by the crossroad. Spur of a moment decision, I bought one, thus “Riding with Buddha”.

Found lunch, saddled up again and found the main road and was reassured by the ones we asked that we were indeed on the correct way, great. My turn to initiate a stop, saw an interesting road sign. Riding with Buddha proved a bit cumbersome, and while readjusting the plastic bags, Jamie gasps. The wheel of fortune broke at Buddha’s back!

Worried for a second if it is bad luck or not, we conclude that Buddhism is about forgiveness and set off again only to have a flat tire!

Luckily, being on the main road means that 800 meters down, there’s a repairman. The inner tube has bursted and is beyond repair. Only a new will do. We wait. It’s rather quick, and we settle the payment and are about to head off, when the bike refuses to start! What’s going on? A Buddha curse? While the repairman is taking the bike literally apart to find the problem, we are on the phone, asking our experts if it is indeed bad luck to break a Buddha. “Yes, it is” is the immediate response, “No, we shouldn’t worry” is the conclusion offered. Didn’t make us any wiser, but the mechanic solved the issue, replaced a faulty part and we set off.

At this stage, we realized that our next trip we will need to have a road atlas and that asking for direction is the same as tossing a coin and that road signs on Vietnamese roads are far in between. We had been sent in the wrong direction. There would be no temple and tunnels on us today and rain clouds soon catching up. We’ve been circling around the city’s outskirts.

A disappointment, well yes and no. Yes, we did not get where we intended, however, we got something else, the “God from the machine”, enjoy the view below:

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

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