No 3, Vol.5, April – May 2015
Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina with an altitude of 3,143 m, Lao Cai Province, Northwestern Vietnam. Photo: Hoang The Nhiem
Surfing on-line, I stumbled on a picture of golden sunrays penetrating carefree cotton clouds which wander aimlessly over rugged mountains. Impressed, I slowly scrolled through them all, one by one.
The page contained thousands of photographs taken not only in Vietnam, but also in Nepal, China and Tibet.
I imagined that the page owner must be very weather-worn, passionate and patient enough to hike all the mountains along the country down to the intricately-tattooed Mekong river delta, out to far away little islands, and back up to the mysterious heights of Tibet, only to take pictures.
My fascination took me to him, Mr Hoang The Nhiem.
He received me in a room with a large cutting-edge picture printing machine. He looked rather a seasoned scholar, nothing of the man I imagined.
The man told me about his professional photography destiny. â€˜After finishing my studies at the Polytechnique Institute, I started working in ocean trading. I sailed around the world and was overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of ever-changing nature. In 1995, I decided to quit drifting to dedicate myself to artistic photography.
A few years after that start, he bought four motorbikes and left them at his acquaintancesâ€™ in different cities around the country.
â€˜Since then, I went to all places in Vietnam. Sometimes I stayed for months. You have to plough a land over and over again and then maybe with luck, you will get its feel into your picture. I always study carefully the geography, climate, cultural elements and local customs of a place before I go there,â€™ he said.
â€˜Some places such as Sapa are beautiful but the weather is unpredictable. I went there almost 30 times.â€™
Obsessed with Sapa, he spared no time and effort to study the elements that make the weather there so coquettish. â€˜The mountains, rivers and vegetation remain almost the same. Only the clouds and the winds are unpredictable. The photographer who understands the nuances of these may make beautiful pictures that impress.â€™
Loving Sapa, Mr Nhiem understands any change of the clouds and winds there. â€˜I know when sunlight accentuates the uncatchable beauty of the clouds, when the clouds filter the brightest rays of light, and when the clouds and the sun mingle in a mythical carnival of the gods,â€™ he shared.
He loved most the clouds and sun on the Fansipan peak, the rooftop of Indochina. He hiked up there many times, despite the unruly weather and treacherous trails.
When I asked how many pictures he had taken, he said the number must be in the tens of thousands.
â€˜Among those posted on the web which one is your favourite?â€™I asked.
He hesitated a moment, â€˜I love them all. They are all my children,â€™ he said.
â€˜Each one of those was chosen among hundreds, even thousands of pictures of the same content.â€™
In Mr Nhiemâ€™s photo library I saw many which showed destroyed forests, black polluted rivers and beaches that became cemeteries of marine life. â€˜I love to take pictures of the beautiful, but am ready to face the ugly. I want to show the truth and let people think about it,â€™ he said.
And his hunts were not limited to Vietnam. He went places around the world.
I asked, â€˜How do you find Vietnamese beauty and culture, compared to other countries?â€™ He said, â€˜Vietnam has a lot of beautiful places and our culture is very diverse. For example, compared to a big country such as China, with a very old culture, Vietnam is very beautiful and unique. Panoramically, Vietnam may not be as beautiful as China, but from a middle distance and close up, Vietnam has countless beauties that canâ€™t be mistaken for any other country. Culturally too, Vietnam is more special, more exotic.â€™
â€˜Did technical knowledge you learned from college help you in any way with artistic photography?â€™
â€˜Of course, a lot. Perhaps my advantage is that I know well the functionalities of digital cameras,â€™ he said.
Mr Hoang The Nhiem
Hoang The Nhiem was born in 1960, in Saigon. He started professional photography in 1995, specializing in scenery and tourist photography. He published two collections, â€˜Call of Seasonsâ€™ (four volumes) and â€˜Sapa Coloursâ€™, and has had private exhibitions in Vietnam, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Singapore and the US.
He won many domestic and international prizes, most notably: two National Outstanding prizes for photographic books (in 2003 and 2011) and three National Outstanding pictures prizes (in 1999, 2000 and 2012).