by Sonja Venäläinen
Vietnam is one of those countries where everyone smiles at you. I met a man in Saigon who told me he never gets sick because he smiles 40 times a day. The Vietnamese are kind by nature, even if they don’t speak your language they will go beyond all means to help you and make sure you’re being taken care of. They have a sense of politeness in everything they do, just like in many other East Asian societies. It’s important to maintain your “face” and make sure every transaction between people is handled with pride and dignity. A smile will get you very far in Vietnam, further than actual money.
I spent two weeks traveling around Vietnam in January 2018. I started off in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, where the old and the new seamlessly mix together in an inimitable way. It's a city where the colonial architecture, the pagodas and the modern commercial buildings melt together into a compelling compound, creating a intriguing atmosphere for visitors. I travelled on to the mountains of Da Lat and eventually to the verdant north, passing through Hanoi and the beautiful Halong Bay. I finished off the trip with some time to relax on the island of Phu Quoc in the south, a couple of kilometres from Cambodia. Throughout my travels I was mesmerised by the diversity of the country and how still you can sense so much of the history in the air.
Vietnam’s development has been remarkable over the past decades and they have said to be determined to become a developed nation by 2020. Poverty has been reduced by 75 percent over the last three decades. In 1993 still over half of the population lived under the poverty line (on less than $2 a day) but today, according to the the World Bank overview, the rate has fallen to 3 percent.
If you're a coffee lover, Vietnam is your paradise. It’s the world’s second largest nation to produce coffee, right behind Brazil. Coffee breaks are very present in the daily life of the Vietnamese. They gather together at coffee shops to socialise, have meetings over a cup of cà phê (Vietnamese for coffee), or simply enjoy it sitting on a little plastic stool on the street watching the world go by.
It’s also a moment to slow down and savour the experience since the traditional way of making the coffee takes quite a while. Vietnamese coffee is very strong so you don’t need much but you still have to wait for it being done in front of you, drip by drip. This wait only makes you crave for it more and when it’s is finally ready, it will blow your mind away.
A very popular way to drink it is cà phê sữa đá, which is with ice and sweetened condensed milk. Traditionally the coffee is done with a small metal drip filter (cà phê phin) and only one cup at a time. It takes some time to prepare the coffee the right way but the taste outweighs the wait. I was stunned by the rich, full taste of the Vietnamese coffee and decided that the only thing I was bringing back home from there would be a coffee kit and a pack of coffee grown, roasted and packed in Vietnam.
As a photographer who shoots mainly film only, I was stunned to find out that there is a huge film shooters’ community that has just began to bloom in the past few years. There's a vast number of photography related coffee shops popping up in major cities. Most of the time these places look like someone’s living room, tucked in between other family businesses in narrow alleyways. They tend to serve as gathering places for photographers to get together and share their passion.
You will most likely stumble upon a huge variety of different films in these places, some sell and repair analog cameras as well. Film is very cheap in Vietnam and you can also find rarities you wouldn’t back home. I scored a few rolls of Kodak Pro Image 100, and Fujicolor Industrial that was released only for the Japanese market.
Developing and scanning film in Vietnam is dirt cheap. Most labs charge around 30’000 VND to develop a roll of film, which is about $1, and they get the job done in less than an hour. I dropped off a couple of rolls at Nadar Lab in Hanoi and got the scans sent to me via Wetransfer in 45 minutes. Another very recommendable stop for film geeks in Ho Chi Minh City is Darkroom Cafe. It’s a sunny little coffee place with a lab & shop upstairs, here you can enjoy a traditional cà phê surrounded by dozens of antique cameras on shelf display and jam to the old school tunes they play, like The Beatles or The Turtles.
Vietnam is a wonderful destination to those who want to visit a country yet not destroyed by mass tourism, filled with intriguing destinations and warm-hearted people. It's an interesting place where history still lingers in the air but you can feel the breeze of a constant change. Don't hesitate, book your ticket now!