A photographic tour of a town called 'peaceful meeting place'

(No.3, Vol.6,Apr-May 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

A friend commented, “Most Vietnamese think old buildings are just that-old buildings that are crumbling away and ready for demolition,” and not venerable relics of the past. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An (in English 'peaceful meeting place') is a must see and many rave about it. I have been there twice; once unaccompanied in 1998 and then later on a guided tour. I was underwhelmed. That is because I come from a land where ‘ancient’ means Stonehenge, Roman walls nearly two thousand years old or Cathedrals built in the sixth century. Picking up Neil Featherstone's outstanding collection of photos of Hoi An taken in July 2015 has got me hankering for a third visit to make a re-evaluation of the international trading city, a Singapore or Hong Kong of yesteryear.
As the name implies, "Hoi An Panorama" almost all the pictures are wide angle two page spreads. It opens with a shot of the red Chinese lanterns and one across the red tiled roofs. Then, it’s the iconic Japanese bridge and the temple inside. Following this, we go to the streets, to the residents and those that visit, to the river, the beaches and the verdant countryside around Hoi An.
Water giving access to the wider world is the mother of Hoi An and Featherstone is excellent at capturing alluring moments on and by the river. We are shown the waterfront with gaily coloured sampans and fishing vessels. One shot features eyes painted on the prows of the latter, which are meant to ward off evil and misfortune. There is the rumble tumble of the ferry packed with people, motorbikes and bicycles coming into dock. Fisher folk are shown with their enormous seated out in the water on bamboo contraptions .There are panoramas of street and river by night and with an approaching storm. Finally, there is the moody ocean in the beach scenes.
Another theme is the market and food-Hoi An is famed for its specialty dishes generally only found here. You can almost smell the market as the photographer takes you round capturing the character of the old and middle aged sellers and the freshness of the vegetables of many bright colours.In the wet fish market we see that typical scene of a motorcyclist riding alongside the containers of live fish tainting them with toxic fumes. One shot is sheer artwork and to my mind worthy of a prize; pink and silver fish heads on ice in a metallic tub. The colourful picture spreads of specialties should have you salivating, especially that of the 'Cao Lau' with its pork slices, white noodles, herbs and red hot chilli.
On to the streets, Hoi An is famous for its artisans. Featherstone takes you round their leather ware, jewelry and tailor shops. One shot shows an array of over fifty colourful patterns of cloth to have your shirts or dresses made and fitted within twenty four hours. Scenes have been captured which are fast disappearing in the larger cities. An old woman with bamboo pole and basket winds her way along. A long line of tourists in cyclos about to start a tour is depicted. Often overlooked in these collections is the motorbike. Here you can see two opposing serried parked lines of them.
Finally, Featherstone shows his talents as a portrait photographer. There is the concentration of a young girl as she prepares to float a candle and lantern down the river, a young bride posing for her wedding photo, a wrinkled smiling old lady with conical hat and a few remaining black teeth and a very young girl, bright eyed with short hair.
This photo album has taught me I need to look at new places with a more discerning eye. I now know you need to take your time with a grand old dame like Hoi An. I must return, if only to try a steaming bowl of Cao Lau noodles!
'Hoi An Panorama' by Neil Featherstone is published by NXB Dan Tri Artbook, hardback at VND 395,000. Available at Tri Bookstore, 158ED Dong Khoi Street Q1 Ho Chi Minh City and at ‘Artbook’ 43 Dong Khoi Street Q1 Ho Chi Minh City.

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