The Essence of Place

Soup is a popular and tasty lunch mainstay.











Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Today I am quickly re-introduced to the essence of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. I just hope I can do it justice and capture the character, mood and culture of this place in my images.

On all of my previous visits to Vietnam, I have spent little time in HCMC, as it is affectionately known. This has just been a transit point to the Mekong or the scenic fishing and resort villages along the country’s lengthy coastline. But on this trip, I’ll be spending six days in and around HCMC.

I am greeted by Khoa Tran, a local photographer with a keen eye and a flair for fashion photography. Khoa will be my photo guide and assistant throughout this trip, and today we are getting acquainted over lunch to discuss our shooting plans. Khoa plucks me from the lobby of my hotel and we are quickly immersed in the chaos of HCMC’s noisy streets. Even though I have been here before it is always exciting and energizing to plunge into the beeping horns, racing motorbike engines and the fast pace of this city.

As we enter a District One restaurant, popular with locals for lunch, I know I’ve really arrived. I am immediately hit in the face with a blast of warm, humid air, carrying the scents of fish sauce, pho and other Vietnamese eatables. At the counter we select prawns, grilled pork and some vegetable soup. We make our way up some stairs, seemingly carried upward by a cacophony of spirited lunch time conversations that bounce off the restaurant’s plaster walls and concrete floor.

I am reminded of the importance of food in the cultures of the world, and in Vietnam it is especially important. These mid-day breaks to eat, drink Vietnamese coffee and share a smoke with colleagues and friends are deeply honored and important traditions. I admire that even as the pressures of the global economy knock on the door these Vietnamese are still taking some time to enjoy life.

Khoa and I review our plans for the week, a time designed to capture the essence of Saigon, hopefully images that will reflect the city’s continuing connection with its old Asian ways and its enthusiastic embrace with the modern world. Indeed, HCMC is a sprawling city where merchants still peddle colorful vegetables and fish alongside counterfeit designer label and goods on the streets just around the corner from tony retailers like Gucci, Prada and Chanel. On the east side of the Saigon River, low-income workers barbeque meat on makeshift outdoor grills in the shadows of rising office, apartment and hotel towers where western business people and the newly rich Vietnamese dine on cuisines of the world.

We’ve made our way to this poor neighborhood to look back across the river and capture some images of HCMC’s emerging modern skyline. It is a skyline still under construction. And as children play games in the street and parents cook dinner, the rising office buildings and luxury hotels are an early warning of things to come for these residents: Their neighborhood will soon be demolished to make room for a new mixed-use development.

As I set up my camera and tripod to make some images of the skyline, I find some old fishing boats on the muddy shore to include the in the foreground. A pleasing image of old and new. I can already tell it’s going to be a great week.

Traditional fishing boats travel along the Saigon River as the city's skyline changes.

Modern offices, apartments and hotels are redrawing HCMC's profile.

Some modest, low-income homes have been demolished to make way for a mixed-use development.

Traditional craft navigate by high-rise apartments and townhomes built for westerners and Vietnam's emerging upper class.

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