You don’t ‘happen’ to come across Dong Van in N.E.Vietnam, you decide to go there and then go to considerable effort to reach it. It’s located 500km from Hanoi, in a relatively inaccessible mountainous area that’s only recently been opened up to foreign visitors, set in the extraordinary landscape of the Dong Van limestone karst plateau.Tectonic activity hundreds of millions of years ago raised the land and subsequent erosion has resulted in a geologically wild area of canyons and huge cone shaped towers of rock covered in vegetation. Leaving the valley terrain and the rice fields of the valley floor, with my special permit for the area in hand, we started to climb the hairpin mountain roads to reach Dong Van itself. The area is home to 17 ethnic minority groups, the commonest being green Hmong. We eventually arrived at the small market town of Dong Van in time to stretch our legs and have a look around. Considering how beautiful the surrounding landscape is, the town itself is a bit grim really. It’s full of grey concrete buildings and the main street is distinctly lacking in character. It wasn’t really the town I’d come to see though. I’d timed my visit to catch the colourful Sunday morning market the next day, and having planned the trip months beforehand, it was with a lot of excitement that I set off to explore Dong Van. Meeting the locals – not all of them looked too sure of us! Shops full of everything you could need in Dong Van Hmong boy chopping bamboo I squatted down so I’d be at the right level to photograph this little cutie only to see that she mirrored me and squatted down too!
The grey buildings give way to an open area of flat land planted with rice. We met a very enterprising chap collecting manure to sell. Wandering back through the old part of the town, we checked out what was cooking at the local ‘Binh Dan ( pronounce Bin Zan) or street food stall, but being vegetarian I gave it a miss. We chatted to a few more of the locals, particularly handy as Chô was Hmong so had an immediate rapport and shared language. Ever on the look out for ‘Paul’s light’ I spotted someone sitting in their house busy making something, with a lovely patch of early evening light falling on her face. Paul ( http://paulwager.info ) is a wonderful chap and an incredible photographer whom I’d been lucky enough to travel with in Laos last year, and one of his mantras that I now have instilled into me is ‘look for the light’, so we headed off to pester the lady in the light. She was very welcoming and invited us in for the ubiquitous green tea, though she was too busy to join us in the partaking of it. She was making fresh rice noodles, passing very thin translucent sheets of noodle dough ( is that the right term?) through a noodle machine while a helper turned the handle of the machine, in preparation for tomorrow’s market. I am sure it was jolly tricky though she made it look easy with her years of practice. There was a queue for the machine, with several families using the same one, all getting ready for the market the next day, and as soon as she had finished with it somebody came and whisked the machine away to the next house. Although the light was good, I didn’t want to get in the way taking photos, so instead we sat and chatted to her husband, who turned out to double as the local medicine man when he wasn’t selling noodles. He was a lovely chap and proudly showed us his medicine boxes full of locally grown natural medicines, and explained some of their uses. As in many Vietnamese houses, on the wall was a long row of framed certificates testifying to his abilities and qualifications. We bid them farewell and returned to our hotel for the evening.
The next morning, full of anticipation, I woke up to the sound of rain. Damn, I’d come all this way to see the market and it was blooming raining. Assured that it would still be on, we got up early and went to where the market was being held. It was a damp and gloomy affair, with people covering themselves in whatever protection they could find, and looking miserable. There were one or two trying to put a brave face on it, this young girl from the Nung ethnic group still managed to look cute if a little chilly! We headed for the shelter of a covered area. My plans of how I was going to photograph the market had gone out of the window, so I reverted to Paul’s mantra ‘look for the light’ and found one or two faces lit by the fires they were working on and patches of daylight. I looked around for my next shot and saw a man eating his breakfast of Pho, or noodle soup, with chopsticks, nicely illuminated with some soft light. It was only after taking the photo that I realised it was our noodle man from yesterday! He seemed pleased to see us and sat us down at one of the wooden tables while he made us a bowl of delicious warming noodle soup from the very noodles that we’d watched being made. He and his wife were doing a roaring trade, particularly as everyone was hiding from the rain in the tented area where the food was being served. I put down my cameras and enjoyed a long and hearty breakfast of several helpings of his wonderful Pho (no wonder I came back heavier!) forgetting about the rain. I loved how looking for Paul’s light may not have resulted in any great photos on this occasion, but had lead us to the noodles and lovely warming human moments both last night and again this morning, and thought that maybe we could do well to adopt his mantra not only for photography but for life in general – there’s always a patch of light to be found if you look hard enough, even in the gloomiest of rainy times! After our unplanned breakfast, we ventured out again to find that the clouds had started to lift and the market was coming to life, and my Dong Van market experience was about to become everything I’d hoped for after all .