This was one of my absolute favorite days of the entire trip and an activity I would recommend to anyone who is an aspiring/amateur/hobby photographer and wants to see the side of Vietnam that is yet to be ruined by tourism.
It was a sunrise tour arranged by “Hoi An Photo Tours”. I awoke at 4am and was picked up at 4:30 from my hotel. It was dark and even a little chilly as the van gathered travellers from all around Hoi An. Just before dawn break we got dropped off by the dock, from where, after a brief but necessary coffee stop, the boat took us to a fishing village on an island nearby.
The village was alive and bustling with activity. The shore was cluttered with multicolored boats, the fishermen yelling, gesturing and unloading their catch and the women of the village, matching the fishermen in their shouts, bargaining for the lowest price. Color, noise and life filled everything and made for the best photos.
After observing this busy scene that completely ignored my gawking, I strode into the village market and with smiles and “xin chaos” asked the locals if I could take their photos. While some shied away from the camera, others posed and smiled, held up their children and offered me food and drinks.
I can’t explain what a magical experience this was. It is a well-known cliche that tourists transform certain places in a country into unrecognizable selling machines devoid of culture. I am not a tourist but a traveller and I duck into undiscovered corners at every opportunity. But this was truly off the beaten path, though a mere forty minutes from Hoi An.
The magic was in the people themselves. After weeks in Vietnam being touted by anything that walks for anything that can be carried (cigarettes, bracelets, books, gum, clothes, grenade keychains, etc), the sight of a Vietnamese person, smiling, welcoming and offering me a piece of their culture was heart melting. The village was small and poor but the people were kind. Not all of them unrolled the welcome mat. Some gave me suspicious glances, others were uninterested, still others expressed obvious disdain for a tourist interfering with their daily routine – and all these reactions made them all the more real and interesting.
I have to conclude that the ability to observe the lives of people from another culture – feeding their children, making their living, sharing jokes – is one of the most precious and wonderful things about traveling. And if you get to participate, as I did, if only briefly, the memory becomes imprinted in your mind as a true experience and almost makes you feel home in a foreign place. Doesn’t get better than that.