The Word Hanoi was kind enough to invite me to write something for the May 2013 edition. It’s available for viewing in PDF or on Issu. My middling contribution’s on page 12 or here.
I get lost in my own tangles when writing, forget that any reader(s) don’t have access to my train of thoughts. Rhythmic paranoia—it all starts to sound like the same plodding beat.
What follows below is the rant I originally submitted before rewrites for focus and word length. Defeats the whole purpose of editing, but it’s interesting to compare, to see how a critical eye and very patient guidance can nail a muddy whinge down to something more structured and clear. At least I think so anyway. Always been a nut for process. And if nothing else, it demonstrates what the editors’ thin red lines are protecting you from.
I sit and wait for someone to snap.
It wouldn’t take much. A killer day at work, the miscarriage of an unjustified harangue from a stressed boss. The scar of a busted mirror that spatially deluded SUV left on a recently purchased Piaggio. The first soggy bite into a guava past its prime. Kindling teeters a while before the cafe’s solace is sought. So when the camera lens intrudes, a step away, maybe less, and the flash the flash—fires in a face that just can’t take any more…
Volume bucks control, gesturing claims a glass or two, sunflower seeds scatter. A proper freak-out.
I’ve yet to witness anything resembling the responses I expect. While I glare back, indignant, locals barely notice.
The brazenness goes beyond normal tourist pathology because there’s no way the same people would shake off tact’s shackles so freely in London, or Paris, or New York. Assumed language barriers assist with the armour of entitlement. Motion is also an enabler, meaning the Du Lịch Xanh Green Tourism vehicles earn an imagined reckoning all to themselves. I know. They have noise and pollution reduction on their side. The traffic snailing in their wake is forgivable, but those karmic credits can’t hold up when you’re reminiscent of the golf cart limousines ferrying visitors through an open range zoo.
A glance at the city’s arrays of blue stools suggests a friendliness towards photography in general. Riding past, I sometimes catch what looks like a mass appeal for reading glasses—the salute of extended, bemobiled arms, heads bunched together in clusters as if squinting at the same stubbornly unresolving blur. Smartphones are just the most convenient expression of passions that run deeper, I think. The density of high-end SLRs is enviable, their lenses and accessories, passed around, discussed and compared, cradled or dangling from straps attached to their often teenaged owners. Sure, conspicuous consumption is in abundance, but investments as boutique as a Leica can’t rest so heavily on brand recognition to deliver admiration returns that are able to warrant their outlay. Manzi Art Space is hosting an Invisible Photographer Asia street photography workshop later this May. International award winners like Maika Elan, and the photographers spotlighted by the Smithsonian Magazine and Sony World Photography, have all gotten coverage in the Vietnamese press.
Its social quality, at least as far as surface impressions go, is striking. Although sunny days entice the standard wedding party weather opportunists, Hanoi’s lakes welcome just as many couples and groups out taking pictures of each other for the fun of it. Even my amateur eye appreciates the magical combination of climate, material finishes, and exhaust fumes that’s created concrete distress begging for reproduction in the avant-garde interior design studios of the world. Pick a wall, any wall. A portrait photographer’s paradise. The lone enthusiast out to capture candid slices of city happenings seems much, much rarer.
I asked my language teacher for a little sweeping generalisation-making help and she did her best to explain: “Văn hóa Việt Nam vừa mở vừa đóng.” A culture both open and closed, the hinge between insider and outsider trumping the private/public divide. It’s not as if sauntering up to someone enjoying their coffee and shoving a zoom in their face is condoned. Everyone who’s wanted a photo with me has always asked permission beforehand, significant considering stares are usually unabashed. It’s more like a free pass from etiquette’s one-way valve. The way life bleeds over into communal spaces relaxes personal image preciousness and casts doubt on whether it’s worth the fuss of a direct confrontation to defend. Especially when—rather than in spite of when the offending party’s so obviously a stranger. A Vietnamese colleague assured me that one more year in Hanoi and I’d have all the intricacies down. I sincerely doubt it.
Which means the impolite tourist really shouldn’t be my problem. Wallowing in surrogate victimhood is condescending and hypocritical. I admire street photography’s results with no pangs of guilt. The iron principle I’m standing on is what exactly…shades of subtlety?
But something petty refuses to let go. I still sit there, waiting for retaliation. A local photographer maybe, beating the interlopers to the draw, whipping up their own camera and shooting back