I travelled to Vietnam recently thinking I was just going to photograph casually while backpacking, but instead I was magnetised by Vietnam’s cities and majestic world heritage sites, and the people (the women in particular) that call them home.
Hanoi is where we begin. It is feverish; it is teeming, and it is New Year’s Eve. From the doors of each cafe, small plastic chairs and tables spill onto the street, and families eat together, babies asleep on mother’s laps. The Old Quarter dates back to the 11th century; brimming with markets, buzzing with life, and smelling like coriander and beer tonight. This city is like a young adult woman coming of age; a fearless fledgling. It is driven forward by local business and the closeness of families. It is where an elderly woman crosses the busiest intersection pushing groceries in her wheelchair. There is poverty but also resilience. In many ways, Hanoi’s spirit reminds me of Johannesburg.
We move north-east for 3 hours. Mother Nature has truly created perfection here in in Ha Long Bay. The magnitude of the hundreds of limestone formations in front of us and the stillness of the water beneath them makes me shiver.
If I remember one colour from this experience it is green. Everything is a shade of emerald highlighted in lime. Embedded in all this beauty are floating villages. I see teenagers languishing in hammocks, women out fishing and working. In the distance I see excessively lavish cruise ships; an unsettling paradox. Twenty million years in the making, Ha Long Bay is one of the most staggeringly and evocatively beautiful places at which I have marvelled.
If Hanoi is the excited defiant young adult, Hue is the tranquil, conservative Grandmother. It is charming and honorable, with its Perfume River moving between the markets and the Citadel.
The experience I will remember vividly forever is the dinner on the final night in Hue, at Mrs Thuan’s home – a miniscule toothless woman who commands such a presence that my voice trembles asking the translator a question. She is 90 years old, has 7 children and over 40 grand and great-grandchildren. Born under the French occupation, a teenager during World War II, 27 when Ho Chi Minh started a revolution and became president of North Vietnam. She was a mother of 6 when the US sent combat troops to her country, 50 by the time the war ended and 80 by the time Vietnam finally join the World Trade Organization. A family photo album lies under a portrait of her husband; his hat gently placed beside it. The table is filled with pumpkin and peanut soup, spring rolls, tofu and sticky rice, bowls of pho – and I am so in awe by these unrivaled moments in my life that I can’t eat.
Everywhere I looked, I saw strength in women. No hardships were about to dictate what these women and their children would become, no storm seemed too heavy, no shadow too dark for their light to be dimmed.
About the author:
Robynne Peatfield was born in 1990 in Johannesburg. She has lived and worked in England, Amsterdam and Scotland since graduating with a Photojournalism degree from Rhodes University in South Africa. See more of her travel and documentary work on
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