Just One Person … in Saigon

It’s hot in Saigon. At 10 o’clock in the morning it’s already thirty degrees with a mounting noon day sun. Rivers of sweat stream down my chest and my t-shirt is wet against my skin. We’re in the market area of old Cholon, the Chinese quarter of  Ho Chi Minh City.  I avoid a passing motorcycle and hug a shade on the sidewalk.

Up ahead our photo guide, Arnaud is telling us to use f3.5 for close-up portrait shots.

“You muss go in cloze,” he says.

Arnaud is a Frenchman living in Vietnam and enjoying the life of full-time street photography.   His enthusiasm is passionate and relentless. We’ve spent three hours walking  and he hasn’t stopped talking once. Lucky for me, he latches on to my Paris born husband and lapses into French.

Two street vendors set-up stalls across a narrow pathway; one selling food, the other selling flowers.  I take a quick shot of the flower vendor. She seems familiar. The set of her mouth, the curve of her nose, the slant of her eyes. She reminds me of my grandmother.

Her friend across the street calls out, laughing and a little jealous of her attention.  I take her picture too. I’m rewarded with a bright mischievous grin

Up ahead Luc and Arnaud are circling a bemused old man. He’s been caught waiting for his wife. Arnaud’s behemoth Nikon hovers near the man’s face. He catches my eye and I shake my head apologetically. After they’ve moved on, I take my shot from a respectable f5.6 and 35mm distance.

“Are you Japanese?” he says in perfect English.

I shake my head and un-mindfully say “Chinese.”

Wo shi hua ren,” he says. He holds his hand three feet off the ground. “Wo li kai zhong guo shi, hai shi ge xiao nan hai.”

I catch the words zhong guo for China. I gather that he’s originally from China and that he left for Vietnam when he was very small.

Later when I look at the map of Vietnam, I realize how close it is to China. It shares a border with Guangxi, the southern most province and homeland of my great great grandfather.  Looking closer at the old man’s photo, I see the familiar Han nose and hooded almond shaped eyes. Clumps of stiff white hair bristle from his cheek.

It reminds me of my father, who at eighty-three years doesn’t see or shave as well as he used to. In fact, this man has an uncanny resemblance to my father’s friend, Uncle Louie. I call him uncle not because he’s a relative but because it’s the term of respect for Chinese elders. When I was little, I used to think that I had the biggest family in the world. Maybe I wasn’t half wrong.

Photos taken in HCMC (Saigon), Vietnam. 2015


This post is one in a series inspired by Just One Person from Around the World. Every week I write about a person met during my travels. Whenever I travel, I take pictures of people. It’s these little encounters that I remember most. In this series, I’ll share a portrait and story on who they were.

CadyLuck Leedy kicked off this weekly challenge and on her blog, you’ll find similar posts to Just One Person from Around the World. Visit her on Wednesdays when she’ll have a new post and links to other stories.

17 Comments

  1. Sandy I am just amazed at all the places we visit and the people we are introduced to every week! I have never been to Vietnam, so this Market and the people were very interesting to me! Thanks for sharing! Cady

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, you’ve taken me straight back to Saigon with this post Sandy! It is only just over a year since I was in that market – also hot, also taking photos, but like you staying a respectful distance from my subjects 😀 I much prefer to use a little bit of zoom in my street portraits, even when I have permission from my subject. I love your portraits and your descriptions of meeting these people and connecting with them, especially the two women 🙂

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      1. I agree, from the couple of days we had there 🙂 It was the last stop on our Indochina tour last year. The pandemic was just starting to affect daily life there, and we flew home to find it already creeping into the UK 😦

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You were lucky to have that trip when you did. I don’t know if or when I’ll travel to that part of the world again. While I was living there, Saigon was one of our favorite places to visit. Aside from the local colour, it also had a historical European feel – something which the French guys appreciated 🙂

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    1. Thank you for saying so Rebecca. It’s nice to know that this piece triggered a thought about connections.

      For most of my life I’ve lived in places where I was a visible minority. It wasn’t until I lived in China & SE Asia, that I saw so many people who physically reminded me of my family. It felt unusual then, to see those visible connections.

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  3. A lovely read, Sandy. Always so interesting reading about the meeting of people or cultures. I am sure you do have the biggest family. It is said that anyone could pass a fifth cousin in the street and not realize.
    As for putting cameras in people’s faces, I am more intimidated and could never do that. It seems like an invasion of privacy.
    Your description of Vietnam makes me sweat sympathetically. The heat is a reason I could never visit that part of the world. Bangkok in their cooler season was bad enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean about the heat. Even though I grew up in the tropics, I don’t like it. I quickly acclimatized to the four seasons and my favorite outside weather is 18C, sunny and brisk.
      On passing a fifth cousin in the street … I think that depends on who you are and where you live. I once lived in North Carolina, US and can assuredly say that there were no cousins there! Mind you, my first cousin has since moved to South Carolina, so maybe the story will be differnt for my kids 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True! The fifth cousin rule might apply to only certain regions. But then I am related to a friend who was born in another country, then adopted as an infant to a family that moved to Australia. But I take your point.
        I like temperatures around 5- 21 degrees. Preferably with little wind.

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