Monday, October 31, 2011

Late Night Photo Mission

The Late Night Market
It’s a strange thing to stay up all night in Hanoi when sober; you start to get this feeling that you’re up to no good.  When I set off at 2:30am with the photographer for this blog, Sebastiano, we felt like thieves.  The alley was silent, so much so that we dared not break it with the revving of his Minsk motorbike.  Instead we rolled it down the long maze that is our alleyway with no memorable sounds save the incessant dripping of water and a few dogs that also had the impression we were criminals.  We weren’t…aren’t…in fact our mission was quite innocent.
My friend Sebastiano (a.k.a. Seb) mentioned during a drinking session that he wanted to be more challenged for his photography assignments.  It was during this session that we hatched the idea for this late night mission.  If you’re a follower of this blog then you might remember an earlier entry about staying up past curfew and a certain disgusting club called Phuc Tan.  It would have been easy enough to go in there drunk and take a few shots with a point and shoot camera, but Seb insisted that those photos always turn out horribly; that they failed to capture the true disgusting nature of all the drunkenness, debauchery, sweat, and bad dancing.  He said it had to do with an improper flash.
So, armed with a new and, I’m assured, fancy flash we drove out to the Red River and Phuc Tan.  In the city, even downtown, there weren’t many people up.  We saw the odd security guard asleep on his feet, working girls in the midst of their nights work, the odd jogger (at 2:30?!), and a few old men playing chess.  Even the rabbit warren of alleyways that make up the Old Quarter were completely devoid of their usual traffic.  It was a bit like a zombie film.
Due to the disturbing calm of the night, we were quite surprised when we came upon the night market.  It was the market that fed other markets, the teat on which all of Hanoi suckles.  There were stacks of pineapples as tall as a man and whole gutted pigs stacked in threes on the back of motorbikes.  It was like a small village of farmers and distributers busy at their industry.  It woke me up.
Neither of us remembered exactly how to get to Phuc Tan, which is likely the case with most that go there.  Eventually, when we got close enough, we just followed the trail of stumbling foreigners wearing the remnants of what were formerly Halloween costumes.  Timing is everything with good photography; at least that’s my opinion…the opinion of a non-photographer.  The whole point of our going out sober in the middle of the night was to catch Phuc Tan with its pants down, which quite literally is what happened. 
It was some expensive equipment we were toting around so we pushed our way through the mass of bodies to the least inhabited part of the club:  the third floor consisting of two make-out couches in full swing, poor lighting, and one couple with their pants down.  I may be exaggerating, but I did feel quite badly when they lowered their heads, adjusted their pants, and left the spot on the stairs where they’d been “dirty dancing” (as ambiguous a term as the situation).  From up on the third floor we could look down onto the dance floor through strewn bits of toilet paper and other half assed attempts at Halloween decoration.  We smoked a few cigarettes and planned our route through the place marking certain strange characters, by costume or behavior, for photos.
Phuc Tan Halloween
After setting up his camera to the proper functions we pushed our way through the crowd, I in the lead making a hole just like a front lineman for a running back (I guess High School Football taught real life skills after all).  Our major concerns were not pissing anyone off, causing them to break the camera, or being too showy with it, causing someone to steal the camera.  When you’re sober, it’s strange how volatile drunks seem.  Surrounded by skeletons, pirates, and sexy bunnies, I was reminded of the college frat parties that everyone makes fun of.  Yet here were adults—backpackers and professionals—doing the same thing.  A middle aged sea captain had his white cap stolen by a sexy young thing without a costume.  I was just behind him so he tried reaching around near my hands unsuccessfully searching for it.  Eventually he realized it was the girl.  She was smiling at him engagingly, but he merely gave her a fatherly look of disappointment and took it back. 
We exited through the sea of laser lights and decided, being quite awake, to take another tour of the giant market.  It was about four at this time and we saw yet a different crowd of Vietnamese workers setting out to start their day.  In a dark alleyway, as we approached the market, there was a troop of about ten women with conical hats and long wooden polls slung over their shoulders like muskets.  At the end of the polls were collections of plastic bags and we assumed that these ladies were going to buy produce to sell at one of the smaller markets.  They marched in step like soldiers…do they meet up every day at four and do this; every day at four while two hundred meters away somebody is buying an overpriced drink for what would be a good day’s profit?
The Spring Onion Man
These are the thoughts that went through my mind as we strolled through the giant market taking photos of people at work or sleeping by their stands.  Most were happy to have their photo taken, some even posed like the spring onion man whose picture is featured here.  It was so much friendlier than the other city markets that often seem disenchanted by tourists.  I guess at that time in the morning two sober westerners wandering the market was more of a novelty.  Some even patted our heads, pinched our cheeks, and called us beautiful.
To celebrate our picture taking success we enjoyed a beer and the sunrise at Puku next to some incredibly drunk Irish who were loudly singing away at five thirty.  Strange.  Strange to have experienced a drunken night-out sober.  Strange to see things through a different perspective.  Strange to see the juxtaposition of the market and the club so close to each other.  Strange always to see the sun come up.  It’s all about the flash.

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