Life (almost) captured on Saigon streets

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It was early morning, hardly seven o’clock, yet Saigon was alive and pulsing.

The mere act of walking down the street outside my hotel was a feast for the soul, a sensory overload of sights, smells and noise. Three million scooters glided and roared their way down the narrow street in an orchestrated ballet of noise, movement and bustle, narrowly missing pedestrians and other scooters. It seemed that everyone was intent on moving, heading to work, or off to school.

The air was steamy, the humidity rising. Diesel fumes mingled with the smell of cooking oil frying as the street vendors cooked omelettes and pho over open fires or small gas burners. People were seated on low stools, eating their breakfast, slurping noodles out of small china bowls or dexterously handling chopsticks laden with greens and rice. 

I saw her first as she crossed further up the street, heading my way. The Vietnamese woman was slightly built, brown worn trousers and shirt, covering most of her body. A conical bamboo hat hid most of her face.

As she balanced her bamboo pole across one shoulder, the ends of the pole bounced rhythmically up and down under the heavy weight of the two trays of fruit that she carried.

She seemed too tiny and fragile for the task she bore, yet she moved quickly and agilely through the crowded street. The vivid yellow of her tray of bananas and the bright orange of her other tray of mandarins, the green stems still attached, caught my eye.

It seemed a perfect photo opportunity – the texture and colour of the fruit provided sharp contrast and her menial labour spoke of another era. I had found my quintessential shot of Vietnamese street life to enlarge and have hanging on my suburban wall, a scene straight out of the old Indochina, quaint, charming and a talking piece for my friends to comment on.

I grabbed my camera, quickly raised it to my eye, but in that instant, she turned her head and stared back at me, eyes full of pain and puzzlement.  

Guilt washed over me. I was callously using this unknown woman for my entertainment, for my pleasure. I lowered my hand, letting the camera dangle from my wrist. 

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Written by Dianne Motton


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