My first full day in Saigon began early with a photo tour I’d booked before arrival. The hotel pickup was at 7am; an impressively early start after a late flight in compounded by late night drinks with old friend Loc, the guru behind Saigon Riders.
After the pleasantries, my guide Arnaud Foucard inspected my piece, a budget model Fuji. Arnaud began to pick through the deficiencies, especially the lack of a viewfinder. This was an oversight I was aware of but not too concerned with as I hadn’t had a camera with a viewfinder for years. I however compounded the situation by admitting that as I had only just purchased the camera, I wasn’t across all the menu all that well. Merde!
The tour was a walk through the backstreets of the chinatown district of Saigon – Cho Lon – taking in some of the sights and characters that Arnaud knows well. The four hours was a workshop getting to understand aperture, ISO settings, focus, composition and controlling with exposure. Lots of info to take in for a novice but worthwhile.
Arnaud impressed upon me the importance of how one engages with the subject, cajoling them with smiles, hand signals and a smattering of local language to persuade them to pose for a shot.
Arnaud is a delightful wisp of a man who moved to Vietnam fifteen years ago to engage himself in tourism activities – guiding tours etc. He now focuses his time on his passion for photography, sharing his knowledge through Vietnam Photo Adventures.
The workshop included taking shots of locals, objects like the iconical cone hat hanging in a dimly lit alleyway, market vendors and a local pagoda with the evocative chamber filled with incense smoke. This last part was especially challenging, in particular trying to control contrasting light beyond my novice abilities. Plenty of time to master that.
The city was gearing up for celebrating the 2nd September national holiday. Commemorating liberation after the second world war, many businesses were closed in anticipation of a big fireworks display in the evening. After the tour and another stroll around town I decided that a massage was in order.
Massages are everywhere in Saigon and I couldn’t believe the explosion in numbers since my last visit; many guaranteeing a happy ending. I had a recommendation for one in District 5, nearby where I had spent the morning photographing. Finding the interestingly named Hang Long, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting as english isn’t spoken here. I was ushered into a dark room where the beds were definitely of the well used variety. Rather than dwelling too long on the dampness of the furnishings, I let myself go and allowed a smiling youngish lady do her stuff.
I was surprised by her slightness, and particularly impressed by the force and power that she was able to summon from her frame. Over the course of ninety minutes, she pummeled my body with fists and fingers, aided at the end by hot rocks and other limbs.
When she placed cucumber strips on my face at the start of the session, I realised that I should have prepared myself by at least shaving. Equally, when the foot massage commenced, she stalled and had to clip my toenails. Another extra I should have attended to. Nonetheless she continued on unfazed in the company of a couple of other clients and their giggling attendants.
She did a good job on me, managing to get the right amount of involuntary groans, and contorting my body into shapes and positions I thought were not possible. At one point I thought she was walking on me, but I soon realised that the pain was not from traipsing soles. It was from the force of her knees driving alternatively into my back as she moved up and down, and from side to side.
After ninety minutes, it was over. I paid her a grand tip of 120,000 dong, or $7.50. An additional 80,000 dong went to Hang Long. A staggering outlay of about $13 in total.
The evening was a catchup with my friend Loc, his wife Nhi and their newborn Bon. Over barbequed octopus, goat and enoki mushrooms wrapped in slivers of beef at a streetside spot popular with young locals in District 4, we caught up on happenings. The smoke from the table set charcoal burner seemed to enhance the food, as did the streetside buzz. We wanted to linger, but Bon was fading into his mother’s arms; we caught snatches of the fireworks from the taxi back into District 1.
We ate at Quan Khoi. Here’s a great link to show you what it’s like in that area.