On The Road to Saigon

By Hai Ngo ’12

Hai Ngo ’12 spent last summer in Vietnam on a Larson International Fellowship, which was established in 1986 by the Larson family to provide a significant international experience for students during the summer before their senior year. A philosophy major and a photographer, Ngo [pronounced “know”] brought along a suitcase full of cameras as tools in his journey of self-discovery. Here are the results.

Saigon bikers

Even though the city is now known as Ho Chi Minh City, most Vietnamese people still call it Saigon. After mopeds and motorcycles, bikes are the most popular form of transportation here.

Da Lat skyline + Qui Nhon kids
Da Lat (Đà Lat)
| Qui Nhon (Qui Nhơn)
[Left] My relatives warned me too late never to buy anything in Đà Lat, a tourist town located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I had bargained with a vendor there and paid 100,000 Vietnamese đồng (VND) for artichokes as a present for my aunt. She told me later the artichokes were worth 50,000 VND. [Right] While adults may be camera-shy, children will often ask visitors to take their portrait.

sewing machine altar
Qui Nhon (Qui Nhơn)

Many of my aunts have worked as tailors. Here, Aunt Ngo’s sewing machine is placed in the altar room, where incense and candles are lit to pay respects to the deceased.

Qui Nhon (Qui Nhơn)

This fire-pen artist is an apprentice to the famous Vietnamese poet Hàn Mặc Tử.

Qui Nhon (Qui Nhơn)

Aunt Ngo and her sister-in-law pose reluctantly for a portrait.

Qui Nhon (Qui Nhơn)

Although pagodas are scattered across Vietnam, they are most noticeable in smaller towns, where they dwarf their surroundings.

Bicycle rickshaw

Even though rickshaws typically cost more than taxis, tourists seem to favor them.

As I struggled with my “Contemporary Portraiture” final in the fall of junior year, I discovered that my fascination with art—namely photography—was more than a creative outlet. It had become a medium of introspection for me. With this new realization, I went to Vietnam on the Larson International Fellowship to experience my cultural heritage firsthand.

While I am ethnically Vietnamese, I was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia. My family relocated to the United States when I was one year old, and I have spent the past 20 years living in Minnesota. I had never met my 100 aunts, uncles, and cousins who are scattered throughout the world; many of them in Vietnam. Therefore, my trip was both a genealogy project and a photography project—a journey of discovery. Since returning from Vietnam, I’ve made a much greater effort to connect with all of my relatives, and to spend more time with those who live nearby.

The most valuable thing I brought back from Vietnam was a cultural experience to share with my parents. I better understand my parents’ teachings and actions. More specifically, in Vietnamese, there is a phrase, tình cảm, which translates roughly to a mixture of emotions, affection, and sympathy. It is a means of justification for one’s actions, independent of logic, and many times tình cảm supersedes logic when someone must make a decision. In my efforts to fully understand tình cảm, I have proposed my senior thesis on the related topic of special obligations in filial relationships.

These few paragraphs barely scratch the surface of what I discovered in Vietnam. Notably, the focus of my project was on self-discovery. My photographs are merely a means to that goal. While the aesthetics of Vietnam were breathtaking, I couldn’t overlook the poverty that was equally present. I have come to see struggle, stress, and worry as a part of the human condition regardless of one’s circumstances. At the same time, contentment is often a state of mind that exists even among the poorest conditions.
— Hai Ngo ’12 (St. Louis Park, Minn.)

Web Extra: View more photos from Hai’s trip in a 2 1/2 minute video. See more of his work at hai-lights.com

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