Asian Fear Factor—Saigon, Vietnam
I am a photographer. My experience is through the viewfinder, a world mediated by a glass rectangle. The images that result close out the honking noises, the smell of charcoal brassieres, diesel fumes, rotting vegetations. The lens wanders and selects what should be discussed; it eliminates distractions. Optics eliminate, enhance, direct and edit, all at once. Without false modesty, I can make the ordinary into something extra-ordinary. This is my vocation, craft and gift. I have good eyes. Given these facts, I now close my eyes, my window to the world. My optic safety net is withdrawn.
I make my partner escort me across the street with my eyes closed. She directs me off the curb. With my first step I am awash in sounds and smells. My radar engages. The first crossing is tense. My third more relaxed. I judge the density of traffic by the sweat and grip of my guide. Nothing hits me. The fragile whisper of fabric breezes my cheek punctuated by abrupt engine sputter, amplified by the choking exhaust. I begin to judge distances by every non- visual sense. I can feel the traffic through the soles of my feet. I am in the river of Vietnam traffic. I crosscut the grain. If my eyes were open, I would see a family of four on a bike, two saffron clad monks, a man driving while a woman sits behind him holding three sheets of plate glass 3 feet wide; 4 feet tall. A man sits with a refrigerator tied on across the rear seat. The motos are the workhorses of Vietnam.
By the seventh crossing my guide is tired of my antics. She has been visually locked into this game I have foisted upon her. Spending the day crossing herds of motorbikes and cyclos is not what she signed up for. Her tastes run more to culture and exotic dinners—go figure. I make another crossing, solo this time.
Eyes closed I step off the curb as my partner shouts at me 100 feet away on the shore of the distant curb. Nothing drastic happens, an uneventful passage, but my wheel of fortune is running down. I am trying the patience of Buddha. He is pleased I am exploring his realm but he is also saying “enough is enough.” Vietnam is the land of the “Future,” Honda’s 100cc motorbike, also the “Jupiter, Dream, Dream2, SuperDream, Angel, Sirrus, and Spacey.” Everything that can allude to an ethereal, above the planet experience, drives through the mortal streets brought to earth with two-wheeled reality. The motorbikes have a regular sputter; the boats have a constant but irregular pulse; cyclos, bicycle driven rickshaws have a wheezy hamster wheel squeak as they ride in twos and threes through the charcoal smoke filled evenings. The future of this part of the world is not bright. Traffic does not snake toward you, rather it braids, from right and left forward and back, it is the “surround-sound” of transportation. Bikes are now replaced by “motos” but they still retain the same sense of exposed social responsibility and harmony. They flow, moving objects in a stream working together. Development brings cars, diesel cars. The encapsulation and isolation of automobiles will destroy the social necessities of the road and disharmony will follow, pollution will be ten-fold and more.