John Armstrong-Millar

P h o t o g r a p h e r

Vietnam

Smile

First Impressions of Vietnam Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City the noise level is extraordinary and for the first few hours you are constantly jumping and turning to react to the honks, hoots and engine noise all around you. It’s an assault on the ears!! First impressions are that the traffic is completely crazy and utterly dangerous with scooters dominating the roads, they flow along like a babbling brook, swerving to avoid each other and any obstacles in their path. Actually once acclimatized to this you realize that everyone is driving carefully and is completely alert to their fellow road users and crossing pedestrians. It is in fact a sort of road dancing, an elaborate choreography of constantly moving vehicles who rarely collide, thank goodness! I didn’t see a single accident while I was there and crossing the road became much easier after a couple of days as you tune into the rhythm of the traffic and learn not to make any sudden changes in direction or speed.In fact the honking is good natured and meant as a gentle warning that there is another vehicle in your vicinity, it’s not aggressive or competitive. To add to the noise in the city, the day kicks off at 5.30am with rousing military music and everyone starts doing their morning exercises, just after sunrise at 5.20am. The parks are full of exercise equipment which is actually used, even though, to my mind the population seems so slim, active and fit it hardly seems necessary to add to their already energetic lifestyle. Tai Chi is another popular park activity, either in groups or alone and age is no limit. Houses are small here so people come outside to use the public amenities, space is so limited that you often see the scooter parked in the front room to get it off the busy, narrow street, even though they have little room inside! I HAVE TO TALK MORE ABOUT THE TRAFFIC! Scooters dominate, from Honda 90s to swish Paiggios: a scooter is used like a family saloon car transporting up to 6 people at any one time. Children can often be seen taking naps on cushions placed strategically on the handlebars and parents seem oblivious to any apparent dangers to themselves and their kids. The most powerful scooter allowed on the road is 125cc and it’s probably just as well to keep the speed down in these driving conditions. The food here is exceptional. There are seemingly makeshift restaurants everywhere, literally on the street, where everyone is happy to eat sitting, perched in tiny plastic chairs. All produce is extremely fresh, mainly fish, rice, noodles, herbs and vegetables, lightly cooked and full of flavour. Whether you are rich or poor the menu seems to be the same for all, so everyone seems to eat well. Drinks consist of ice tea in a pint mug, beer (mainly for the tourists, BIA 333) and smoothies with condensed milk and sugar. There’s no wine worth mentioning even though the French were here for a while they don’t seem to have left that particular legacy.You can get good bread though which I suppose is thanks to the French influence. Fresh fruit is popular for dessert, dragon fruit, jack fruit, papaya, water melon and mango. Dragon fruit is best when served as part of a fruit salad, on its own it’s a bit fibrous and tasteless but it looks spectacular with its bright red skin hiding a white flesh flecked with black seeds, often chopped into cubes. The population is on the increase, around 93 million, i’s a young population with an average age of 29.Vietnam has more people than the UK and resources are stretched so much so that, for example, two schools share the same school building, one school uses the facility in the morning and another in the afternoon! Imagine that all you teachers amongst us! The economy is growing rapidly. 5.9 million people live in Ho Chi Minh City Style on the street; face masks are important almost a fashion statement! It is a little polluted in Ho Chi Minh City, but no more than most big cities, there is a certain amount of dust kicked up so a lot of people do wear masks. The Vietnamese cover themselves up even though it seems too hot for us tourists. Colour is everywhere, in bold patterns,in beautiful silk shirts; the Vietnamese are often called the Italians of South East Asia. You can buy fake designer goods everywhere and the inhabitants are as fashion conscious as their incomes will allow, a good salary here is around 370€ a month. The pace of life is frenetic and you often see people taking a nap, in-situ, on a scooter by a market stall. People welcome having their photo taken, making my work a lot easier.They are open, friendly and optimistic about the future, even after the hardships they have recently endured. I must go back to continue my work in this interesting country.