I had done all but the last. The truth is, for a passionate photographer and traveler, the search for the decisive moment is a challenge, if not an obsession.
It took almost a year to prepare the 20-day trip, a 1600-km trek deep into the remote northern highlands of Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. It was a journey traced on seemingly endless winding paths, for straight roads are rare, and into a primeval wilderness of dense vegetation and forbidding precipices. The land demands respect, since it does not yield its secrets easily. Only when you take up its challenge does it reveal itself and welcome you as its initiate.
For someone of my generation, the word Vietnam is colored by the stigma and guilt of its history of brutal hostilities. This psychological obstacle is an additional difficulty to overcome as one tries to decipher the land photographically.
It was with this in mind that I began my journey. But the vitality and grandeur of the country’s natural beauty proved that it could magically eradicate all traces of guilt from the travel photographer’s memory and render verdant whatever humanity has entrusted her to safeguard.
The country gives the impression of a vast botanical garden, in which an amazing variety of vegetation has created a riotous “window of green” that even the most renowned of fashion designers would envy.
This remarkable environment is home to fifty-four ethnic groups, who have lived in the country in a state of “ecological nirvana” for centuries. Nature gives them what they need, and they take from nature what they can. So simple, so spare.
Frugal tillers of the soil, women mostly, clothed in brilliant colors and conical hats, they seem to be always working. Like colorful tiny figurines dwarfed by the grandiosity of Nature, constantly on the move in a never-ending to-and- fro and up-and- down, they shape the land into endless terraces that ripple over the countryside like an “earthen tattoo”, an installation of nature in progress that astonishes even the most unsuspecting observer.
I started out my photographic narrative of Vietnam with the sole aim of depicting the land, and the flora and water—nature’s most life-giving elements—that dominate its landscape. I soon realized, however, that the human factor was equally important and worth recording, particularly since the economics of home and community in the countryside is so fully embedded into the landscape and in the end, assimilated by it.
I hope that this selection of photographs conveys something of what lies beyond the observed and recorded: the yet unformed and elusive feelings that rise like a mist as one experiences the country.
Northern Vietnam is seductive. Effortlessly and unhurriedly, it captivates the travel photographer, and in the end binds him in an enduring relationship.