Go Play in the Traffic!

A police officer directs thousands of motorbikes, cars and trucks during morning rush hour.









Evening rush hour brings rain and a new swirl of color and motion.













Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ever since I started photographing Vietnam in 2005, I’ve been trying to capture an image that would tell the story of the massive numbers of motorbikes that clog Ho Chi Minh City’s streets.

There is really no way to adequately describe the traffic jams, constant tooting of horns and the sheer crush of vehicles whizzing up and down the streets. It is as if the bikes are each an individual blood cell, pulsing their way through the veins of a larger organism. And if nothing else, they are a testament to Vietnam’s rising standard of living, having replaced the bicycle as the preferred mode of transportation.

The 1,000 words to tell this story would best be done with a photograph. And so this morning I decided to go play in the traffic.

My photo guide Khoa Tran and I found a very busy intersection during morning rush hour in the heart of Saigon. Not only was it clogged with thousands of motorbikes, it had the added visual of police officers directing traffic, including one standing in the middle of the intersection on a platform.

At first, I shot from the four corners but thought I was not nailing the image I wanted. It was obvious the best place would be in the center of one of the streets facing the intersection and with the traffic cop dead center in the image. I asked Khoa if I would get arrested for doing this and he said probably not. So, I took up my position. As I stood there shooting images, I could feel the bikes, cars and buses moving by on each side. It was a bit risky but it also was fun, as on this second day in Vietnam I really believed I was capturing that fleeting essence of place.

Later, I found another intersection but this one was built around a traffic circle. I’d been thinking for some time that the best way to capture the ideal traffic photo might be from above. I surveyed the buildings around the traffic circle and selected one that had a third-floor balcony. There was a restaurant on the ground floor, suggesting the home above was probably owned by the family that operated the eatery.

On this outing I was accompanied by a friend from Saigon, Tin Le Nguyen. Tin speaks very good English, and while not a photographer, has learned what I am after and does a good job of arranging logistics.

Tin asked someone in the restaurant if we could go upstairs and shoot photos. The request was quickly passed up the family hierarchy to an older woman who appeared to be the seasoned matriarch of the family. She deeply frowned, looked at us like we were crazy but said yes when we produced a 50,000 dong note ($2.50).

We climbed the three flights of stairs and I set-up camera and tripod. The spot was perfect. A light rain fell, leaving the street wet and the overcast sky provided soft diffused light. I was in pig heaven. But after about 15 to 20 minutes, Tin announced, “We have to go!” I turned to see the old woman again, the deep frown having returned.

“She says we are close to the airport and she doesn’t know who we are,” Tin said.

“She thinks I’m a terrorist?” I said, remembering it was just five days until the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“She says we presented no papers and she doesn’t know us. She just doesn’t want any problems.”

I figured she was really worried a policeman would see the pasty white man with the big camera perched on the balcony and want to know what was going on. And after all, how long does it take to snap some shots of the traffic; we’d been there 20 minutes now.

The woman frowned some more, I nodded and smiled in an agreeing way and gathered up my equipment to leave. This made her smile again.

It was a good day. It got some good images, avoided arrest and had managed to leave the old woman with a smile on her face.

Under the watchful eye of the colonel, commuters negotiate their way to work.

A policeman directs the rhythm of traffic like a music conductor.

Motorbike drivers appear to have no fear moving among buses and trucks.

Quitting time means another commute through traffic during a monsoon season shower.

The view from the third floor of a family restaurant makes for good imaging making.

A slow shutter speed helps create the sense of motion in these images.

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