On travelling and the photography of memory and the imagination

I remember reading somewhere – a very long time ago – that sometimes, the best photographs are photographs you could not take, or that some photographs are the better for not having been taken. I cannot remember who it was who said it but, travelling  through Vietnam, I knew what he or she meant.

There are, first, the physical limitations, most usually imposed by my means of transport (namely, buses speeding and weaving on uneven highways or trains that seem to spend most of their journey on tracks laid through high jungle growth that shields the world from view) that render the physical act of photography impossible.

And there are those times when the tableau that unfolds before my lens is too fleeting, too delicate to survive my intrusion, or so fraught with ethical uncertainties as to make it impossible to capture in light and colour. At such times I often thought the better of it and decided that it was prudent to commit it to memory. It remains for words, if I can indeed muster the right ones, to help me remember, and you to imagine, these unseen photographs.

And so it was with many things I saw as I passed through Vietnam's highways and byways, eyes and neck straining right or left from the window of a bus, a taxi, a train or the pillion seat of a motorcycle.

Bus Station, Quy Nhon

I will likely offend your aesthetic sensibilities – I know I will certainly offend mine and trample my own rules of what is an acceptable standard – and post a few photographs that do not reflect well on my abilities: but in any case where any photograph to tell the story is better than no photograph at all, any photograph trumps. So, with no apologies, here are some taken with my iPhone from inside a moving bus, travelling at speed, in failing light. 

On the bus, somewhere on the road to Hoi An

Flower shop and house, road to Hoi An

The highways always pass through the middle of towns and villages and, it seems to me, are often the main street. People are briskly walking up and down either side, or riding a bicycle or a motorcycle equipped with baskets and often carrying impossibly large loads, which they seem to have a unique knack for balancing in ways that defy the laws of physics and gravity. Commerce and other work are taking place at the usual Vietnamese feverish pace. Many of the small motorcycles have an entire outdoor kitchen loaded on the back and are on their way to a favoured spot at which the rider will set up  her lunch kitchen, (cooking street food is always a woman's work in Vietnam) ready to do a brisk trade in street food. 

There are many quirky little houses, shop fronts and local small vignettes that make each stretch of town and village road interesting: what a pity we keep moving, as the bus stops for only the moments it takes to disgorge one or two passengers and perhaps take on a couple more. 

On the outskirts of each settlement, the green quilt of the rice paddies, or the fruit orchards with the Christmas-like colour theme of intense green foliage decorated with equally intense reddish dragon fruit reclaim the ground. Dotted through the rice paddies are frugal, lean scarecrows (I assume) made of one or two sticks on which are attached plastic sheets, sometimes in the shape of light raincoats, billowing in the breeze. While these scarecrows madly flail their flimsy plastic limbs, there move among them men and women, bent to their task, tending to the precious grain. 

Rice paddy with plastic scarecrows, on the edge of a town, on the road, somewhere.

Every few kilometres there is yet another Cham temple built many centuries ago, imposed with suitable prominence upon a hill and meant, no doubt, to inspire awe. Competing for awe and devotion, though on lower, more accessible ground, are Buddhist temples and Catholic churches, with an occasional Cao Dai temple. The word “Chua” is prominent on the signs at the entrances to each of these places: I was told it means “God” and is thus used to denote a place of worship. 

Strangest of all, perhaps, is the sheer number of giant Buddhas dispersed through the countryside, usually on the grounds of a temple but sometimes, it seemed from my speeding seat on the bus, on their own, smiling and benign, grand and dignified, with one hand held up in a gesture of blessing.

As we wind our way past rice paddies, fruit orchards and farms, I see tall haystacks looking back at us, sometimes on solitary point duty and sometimes in platoons: they are unlike any others I have seen. Each is a bizarre figure built from the ground up in impressive style — large, rotund and eye-catching. Each has a personality all his own: a smaller ball – a head, perhaps – decorated in unique styles, crowns the corpulent mass and fashions an effigy that seems to have a peculiar inner life of its own, sometimes resembling things and images with which we might be familiar, like a yeti, or the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. They stood like sentries in the fields and courtyards of the countryside. I saw one that, I am almost sure, must have inspired the design of the villainous character Jabba the Hutt in the Star Wars film trilogy.

In among these bucolically blissful scenes there were reminders of the cycle of life and death, of the end point of our individual and collective awareness, of the finite nature of what we are, what we see and hear and live. They were the multicoloured graveyards resembling scale-model cities, daubed with a riot of pastel colours and built a few metres in from the roadsides on the gentle, low slopes of easily accessible hills and rises. 

And then there are the inevitable war graves, where sombre, pale markers standing to attention atop each plot are lined up with military precision in gardens of stone, a reminder for the aeons of man's blind folly that drives him to abbreviate promising lives before they have been fulfilled.

Grave site – through the rain-spattered window of the train rolling from Hue to Nha Trang

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