Muong Hum Market Portraits

Believe it or not : his first try at taking portraits.

Muong Hum Market Portraits

by / Tuesday, 17 April 2012 / Published in Stories / Tagged , ,

Most people spend their Sunday morning relaxing, maybe sleeping in.

Not while in Sapa !

On this particular Sunday morning I found myself being thrown about the interior of a Ford Transit, as it attempted to transit me over a mountain one would think a Transit ought not. The previous day I had immersed myself, inside and out, in the best the Northern Highlands could throw at me. The outside soaking came via a medicine bath; being submerged in a timber barrel filled to the brim with a tea like brew of 72 different herbs and spices, putting the Colonels 11 to shame.

First portraits attempt by ED at the Muong Hum market

I was quite unsure on the definition of medicine, but I have been informed its a mixture of fragrant leaves and mild drugs from the mountains that leaves your skin feeling like its fresh off the showroom floor, and the rest of you feeling a little bit high. I relaxed on a sunny terrace drinking tea with the H’mong spa attendant for 45 minutes rubbing my skin in curiosity of how fresh if felt.

The inside soaking can be put down to something less therapeutic. I had thrown my girlish giggling inhibition to the wind and decided that night I would dine on grilled sparrows on a stick, and rice wine. I have mentioned it before, but it needs reinforcing that rice wine is not at all wine. Wine is comfort drink, that makes you feel civilised. Rice wine is hard alcohol that retails for less than 20c a shot in a street side establishment. The sparrows were excellent. Devoured whole, the poor little birdies crushed under the power of my jaw releasing their tasty crunchy goodness.

A fantastic night, but not the ideal predecessor to a 1 1/2 hour rough as guts ride around a mountain en route to the village of Muong Hum, a stones throw from the Chinese border, where the Local tribes would be mingling in their weekly social gathering. The village market.

I had it on the best of advice that going this distance would ensure a market scene free from the great white hordes of tourists, and all the trinketry that goes with them. It couldn’t have been truer, with only the occasional other white folk in sight (obviously given the same advice) the marketeers left myself, and my companions for the day (Minh from Saigon, and a friend of his Keith for America) for the best part free to wander without hassle.

With no experience in social street portraiture, a market where I was as foreign as one can be, in a town where even fluent Vietnamese won’t help you negotiate the tribal languages, it was a deep end of sorts to jump into. On the other hand, Minh is a professional portrait photographer in Saigon so making the most of his company it was the perfect opportunity to try something photographically new. I quickly learned that it wasn’t the sort of place where people appreciated having a big zoom lens pointed at them, as evidenced by a village woman throwing a plastic bag at me after my quick hello and a shutter happy burst. A more tactful approach was needed.

My first chance to interact with the villagers occurred when I wandered down to a stream to photograph some ponies bathing. The owner cheerfully announced himself, and I gave a slightly fuller smile back. To his great enjoyment I showed him the photograph of his mules, then gestured if he would like to have his photograph taken? After a moments hesitation he accepted the offer.

It wasn’t the best shot of my life, the lighting was coming from the wrong direction, I was using a wide angle lens, but the result was still greatly pleased. The pony herder called over his wife to see the photograph, who herself accepted the offer to be photographed, to great delight. I didn’t realise at the time, but I think she may have followed me quite a bit that day, as she appears in the background of a great deal of my photographs, staring at me.

My new rhythm was to look at, or photograph the goods for sale. At every opportunity showing the stall keeper the photographs. If they showed interest, which most did, then ask if they would like to have their photograph taken. Quickly take one, and regardless of the quality swing the camera around and show the subject, which was usually reacted to with smiles and laughter, often shouting at their neighbouring stall holders about what just happened. With a smiling, giggling local, comfortable in front of the lens, its the perfect time to blast the shutter and get as many shots as possible in a short burst, thank the subject with a large smile and move on.

As this was the social gathering for the week, a lot of the villagers had turned to the bottle for a good time, leaving a few chirpy folks wandering the streets. Many of whom were quite happy to come over and say what I presume was hello, as I was sitting in the shade, and have their photo taken as well.... After a few good hours of wandering and watching at the market it was back onto the van to repeat the rough ride back to Sapa, satisfied with the mornings photos and my first try at portrait taking.

Ed Bourke

Hi. I’m Ed.

After recently finishing my Masters of Architecture and pausing on the edge of falling into the professional world at the age of 22, I decided that 4 weeks leave a year just wasn’t good enough, especially after giving up 5 years of weekends to work a part time job through university. It was time to gather all those weekends back.

I stayed at my part time job over the summer, almost dying of boredom as I tended to the CD and DVD section at Myer Launceston, that was dying in the shadow of the download industry. With one final tidy up of the CD’s I resigned from the job I held for 6 years and started cleaning up and selling bits of the rest of my life. For a month I cancelled gym memberships, moved out of share house, sold stuff on gumtree – and just generally parted ways with one part of my life.

A few days later I was laying 25 kg of stuff out on my parents kitchen table and deciding what I could shed from my pack to cut down on weight. My hairdryer was shoved into a cardboard box, and wasn’t going to see Asia with me.

With a vague plan, 5 nights booked in Saigon, and a Chinese visa pre organised I left Launceston for what I had budgeted as about 6 months of traveling in Asia. After that, the rest is fairly thoroughly documented in my blog.

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  • These kids are so sweet and innocent!
    London caller
  • Very interesting read and I love the photos. I have hard time approaching people with my camera because I am a bit shy so I just settle for candid from far away with my zoom lens.
    Fahad Jafarullah
  • Your photos and stories are really brilliant, love the portraits ... getting people to relax with you before you take photos, you can see that they are cool with you being there…or maybe just drunk yeah !! ha ha
    Bali stylelife