Pit-stops in the North

I spent week up North. 3 day buses, 3 night buses and 3 destinations in a triangle, converging around Hanoi. It was a welcomed mix of jumper and shorts weather, occasional downpour and the classic heat with cooler, starry evenings.

Ninh Binh was a tourist fly-trap. Expected. The day and half I was there, I climbed a sweaty amount of stone stairs for views of other tourists taking selfies, mostly. The karats were a highlight (being the main reason to go to the city) and they were pretty spectacular to be fair. Reflected on the irrigated rice fields some of the monoliths were bordering on the magnificent.

Day bus back to Vietnam then a hop onto a night bus to Mu Cang Chai. Late edition. Hadn’t heard of that town until the day before I landed in Hanoi but google images did it’s job and made it look rad so…why not. Gallivanting on your own means what you lose in sensible ideas and conclusions about what to do next, road bants and shared memories of scenery you make up in… freedom? Freedom. Freedom of compromise, apparently.

Mu Cang Chai was worth the last minute decision though. Some of the best valleys I’ve seen, stacked with rice paddies. Steps carved into the hills as if cut with a butter-knife. Drone paradise. I didn't realise the area was populated with H’mong people too who were, as always, friendly, curious and wearing clothes and styles that I felt need to document. The roads were long and fairly empty and I was a spectacle, being practically the only ‘westerner’ in sight, generally. The beard didn’t help. More of a target for intermittent face-grabbing from locals. The real spectacle wasn’t really the mound of chin hair blowing in the wind but the mountains, peaking between the clouds. The thick, smokey-white fog moved up and down the gradients as if the forest it hovered between and above was breathing. It was marvellous. Even the locals, once they’d reached a decent enough vantage point, stopped and watched the vapour dance and spill. I could’ve spent more time there.

But the bus brakes for no man, so back to Hanoi and one last jolly to Cao Bang. Check out the well photographed Ban Gioc Waterfalls near the Chinese border. The drive was about 80k from Cao Bang town centre which wasn’t horrendous. I was quite looking forward to it actually. A couple of hours of scrambling through the mountains on the 110cc screecher. The terrain reminded me a lot of Ha Giang actually. Compliments to the chef. I was mentally fighting the weather gods en route, negotiating with rain deities, pleading from the fuck off. For a few hours at least? I can’t drone in the rain? Have some goddam foresight you cloudy-brained freaks. They held off until way after I reached the destination which, incidentally, was worth the bike-bum-ache. The waterfalls were huge and cascading (as waterfalls are) but the colour of the water was curious. Light, probably because the limestone? And warm to touch. Another tourist honey-pot so I enjoyed the view for a bit then back on the road…

Hanoi for one night for beers. Felt a bit stationery. The opposite of motion-sickness. Still-sickness. The road provided me with a shit-tonne of photo opportunities which was most kind. Most of which were average, but there were a few captured moments that I really liked. They bring me back.

fluidity of a city

My aim was to capture light and movement in the city. Saigon is chaotic and busy, but it’s that density that allows an onlooker to see the order in the chaos. Drivers abide generally by ‘common-sense’ rules: no need to speed or cut through. Vehicles, en masse, merge into one larger stream, matching acceleration, speeds and direction like schools of fish. The chaotic individual becomes part of the ordered collective. It’s seamless and it works in this city and I wanted to find a way to capture it. I’d been exploring long-exposure shots for a while using my camera and even my phone-camera, but it took some experimenting to realise that the drone had similar capabilities.

To make the time-lapse, I think I must’ve taken around 3,000 pictures? I used a few programmes for editing the shots, knitting them together into the time-lapse and occasionally stabilising the footage before editing the final piece. I didn’t stand and physically press the shutter 3,000 times though! I’m not a robot. I get bored and distracted easily and would fail at that. Fortunately, the drone has a continuous-interval-shooting mode so I could fly it to the right position, find the height and the angle and let it do it’s thing.

300 shots takes around 15 minutes though…so I did a lot of standing. Sometimes at the side of the road. Sometimes under a bridge. Sometimes next to a curious Grab-driver. Sometimes crouching on a curb for a treat. I spent more time by the canal than I realised I would, which is fine, apart from the amount of couples you encounter on that patch. It’s quite a romantic setting I suppose? So it must have been pretty unnerving for them to have a man, standing for occasionally 20 minute stretches (battery length), staring into space, with the continuous sound of a camera shutter emitting from him. What is he… is he watching us? Was that sound…a camera? Why does he look like he’s trying to be relaxed but he’s obviously a bit embarrassed? Is he actually pretending he’s seen something in the sky? etc.

I had a few locations around Binh Thanh, D1, D4 and D8 in mind - places that had dark spots to contrast with the light and busy intersections or sections of interesting curvature and shape to the roads and infrastructure. I thought it would allow for more interesting ‘streaks’ of light. Light doesn’t bend, so the illusion and bend of the vehicles/light helps to create an eeriness to some of the shots.

It was a good opportunity to witness the city without a lens. With the drone not needing a pilot and my phone (attached to the drone control) incapacitated, the standing and watching allowed me to study the city and the people. It was cool to listen to the sounds of the roads and imagine where all those people were headed. Probably inhaled half a lungs worth of carbon monoxide. C’est la vie.

The music in the short is the first part of a track called ‘Providence’ by God Speed You, Black Emperor. It’s a piece I’ve really liked for a long time and I’ve been looking for an excuse to use it… I just hadn’t made the right thing until now. It draws you into its repetitive, rhythmic vortex and has a consuming sadness to it, yet you feel like you have to listen to it and see it through to it’s weirdly predictable completion. It’s soothing. And haunting. I think it fits well with the onrushing relentlessness of the nighttime Saigon traffic. A tide of lights.

‘fluidity of a city’