Vietnamese who grew up in the 1980s like myself were taught in school textbooks that Vietnam has “golden forests and silver seas”. In other words, we were blessed with an abundance of natural resources. We were told that we should be proud of our green paddy fields, our plentiful fish in the ocean and the trees in our many forests.
As a girl who rarely travels anywhere — especially outside of Vietnam — being invited by Mekong Tourism to Kampot, Cambodia for the 9th World Congress of the Most Beautiful Bays in the World is something quite out there. Not only was I supposed to see one of “the most beautiful bays in the world” for the first time, I was supposed to shoot it in a way that matches its beauty. So I packed my bags, and jumped on a Sapaco bus to Phnom Penh at 6am with three cameras — my trusty DSLR, a small point-and-shoot and a Holga-like toy camera — and a tripod, to make sure I wouldn’t miss a thing.
Alex is in his Hyundai jeep and he’s driving us to the Vert garment factory he runs in Bac Giang. We’re there to see the process of going from clothing design to final packaged product, a full process that is rarely carried out in the garment industry in Vietnam. Most of the work is CMT — cutting the fabric, making the garment, adding the trim. It’s a time consuming activity, but when you take the final retail price of the garment, in Vietnam only 10 to 20 percent of that value is going to the process of actually making the clothing. The rest goes to the middleman.
I tried to find the artists' village a few years ago and failed miserably. When I was new to Saigon, a durable expat had told me about a place he had once been taken to, where a group of artists lived in traditional wooden houses.
I’ve often thought that “You are not special” is a terrible thing to say to someone as it trivialises the human experience. But staring up at 30 metres of raw Cat Ba Island mountain that you are expected to climb is a humbling experience — one that could make the most rock-strong of our bretheren feel a bit trivial or even unspecial.
We all know that travelling is mostly about who you meet. And the prime draw of visiting New York isn’t the tall buildings, theatres or pizza. It’s the 1,000 cultures that meet there, all building their kooky version of the American dream.
We meet in front of the Caravelle at 8.30am sharp, the earliest I’ve ever had call to be in Lam Son Square. All around us are departing tourists and waiting taxis, sticking to the frenzied itineraries of first-timers. We have one of our own coming up, but it’s a bit subtler than the well-worn path of the guidebooks. We’re going to be peeling back the layers of history.
It’s sunrise. The waves are riding high and the sky is cloudy — it’s about to rain. I got there early to see the fishing boats come in with their fresh catch. Like dots on the horizon, they bobbed on the tempestuous ocean making their way back after a hard night’s work.
“I’m on this trip because around this time last year my aunt died at Mt. Kailash on a pilgrimage,” Selva explains. “She went with a group of friends, when they reached Kailash she wasn’t feeling well so she told them to continue without her. They left to do the three-day Kailash Kora and she passed away before they returned. One of the women with her told me she looked so peaceful her sari wasn’t even ruffled.”
Given the increasing amount of attention it's received from tour groups, is Vietnam’s iconic pottery village an example of rich craft and cultural heritage or just another tourist cash cow? Marc Forster-Pert went to find out. Photos by Francis Roux