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Vietnam – Two Lenses on Traditional Culture

Although having one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the last decade, with significant advancements in modernization and higher living standards, Vietnam is still home to many traditional cultures living in several regions of the country. These include the northern and central mountain areas, the Cham region on the south eastern coast, and the Khmer precincts of the Mekong Delta. Because of severely diminishing numbers, many of these cultures are considered “vanishing”.

Black Lo Lo. The Lo Lo inhabit the northern mountains in Ha Giang and Cao Bang provinces. They take some effort to locate, and currently number just over 3,000 in this country of 90 million.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II + 50mm @ 50mm, ISO 200, 1/1000, f/1.4

One of the more visible and unwelcome signs (at least for a photographer) of vanishing cultures are the ubiquitous NY Yankee baseball caps and Fly Emirates T-shirts! It’s understandable of course, as they cost next to nothing and are easy to get, while traditional clothing requires skills that are passed down generation to generation and are labor intensive. The “vanishing” is occurring as ethnic tribal members, typically young women, marry and assimilate into Vietnamese society. In addition, more young men these days are leaving their villages for the cities and the promise of more affluent lifestyles.

Bo Y. The Bo Y people are found in the border districts of Ha Giang & Lao Cai provinces in the north. Population about 1,450.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 1000, 1/250, f/2.8

The number of places in the world you can still fairly easily access and document native peoples is increasingly disappearing into the past. Some of the 54 ethnic minorities in Vietnam are in extreme danger of vanishing completely over the next several years. At last count these include the O Du (100 members), Brau (250), Rơ Măm (250) Pu Peo (400), and Si La (600). Far less in danger but still diminishing, are the Tay, Thai, Hmong, Hoa, Khmer, and Nung, all numbering around 1 million.

Brau woman enjoying her pipe. The Brau live all together in a single community of around 250 people in Kon Tum Province, central highlands.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 640, 1/1250, f/3.5

Featured in this article are images by celebrated French photographer Réhahn documenting some of the aforementioned vanishing tribes. They are part of his multi-year project documenting all 54 ethnic groups before it’s no longer possible. His two books, Vietnam: Mosaic of Contrasts 1 & 2, are integral parts of this project.

Chu Ru. Nearly all 11,000 Chu Ru live in Lam Dong Province, central highlands.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 800, 1/1250, f/1.8

Also featured here, but in a completely different style, are images of Viet ladies, or Kinh, wearing the traditional ao dai. Fine Art travel photographer David Lazar, whom Practical Photography Magazine has called “…one of the world’s foremost travel photographers”, gives you his take on this traditional women’s-wear that has undergone a vanishing act of its own in recent decades, at least in terms of everyday wear. The ever elegant ao dai is now seen much less on the street these days, and has been largely relegated to formal occasions, tourist hotels, fashion magazines, beauty pageants, and as school uniforms in some areas.

The Girl and the Bodhi Tree – Young model in the gardens outside the 1,000 year old Temple of Literature – Hanoi.

Like Réhahn, David is also engaged in a multi-year project on Vietnam, as the second installment of his planned Southeast Asia series of coffee table books. (The first is the recently published, Myanmar – A Luminous Journey).

Ladies in White – White is the pure, classical color of the ao dai. Their conical hats, so associated with Vietnam, are called non la. Temple of Literature – Hanoi.

The two photographers have different styles and goals to be sure, but do share some strong similarities. First and foremost, they are both passionate about what they do. Both are primarily portraitists. They are good friends who sometimes work side by side. Both are minimalists, in that they carry only one camera, two lenses, rarely a tripod, and shoot in natural light only.

The Girl with the Purple Fan – Emperor Minh Mang Mausoleum, Hue

As my favorite Kinh guide is fond of shouting on photo tour – multiple times a day – welcome to Vietnam!

More pictures of the Vietnamese tribes from Réhahn:

Dao Tien ethnic group, Cao Bang Province, northern Vietnam. Various other Dao groups are scattered in the mountains of the north.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 800, 1/800, f/2.5

Dao Do, or Red Dao. The Dao are one of the larger ethnic tribes centered in the north in Lao Cai Province, but also found in Lai Chau, Ha Giang, Bac Kan, Cao Bang and others.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000, f/1.8

Mnong Girl w/ the family Elephant. Conde Nast Traveler cover shot by Rehahn. The Mnong number about 67,000, with 80% living in two central highland provinces, Dak Lak and Dac Nong.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ 100mm, ISO 1250, 1/800, f/5.6

Nung. The Nung live mostly in the northeast mountains, Bac Kan, Cao Bang, Lang Son, Tuyen Quang.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 800, 1/640, f/4.0

O Du. At last count the O Du number only 100. They live in a single community in west Nghe An Province towards the Lao border.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 1000, 1/100, f/2.0

Pa Then. This woman is wearing her festive finery. Some 3,700 Pa Then live in Ha Giang and Tuyen provinces in the northern mountains.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 800, 1/800, f/3.5

White Thai. The Thai ethnic group as a whole is among the most populous at over one million inhabitants. The White Thai are found mostly in the northwest provinces of Son La, Lai Chau and others.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 800, 1/200, f/1.8

Kinh. The Kinh are also known as Viet, or Vietnamese. They are the dominant ethnic group, though obviously not a minority at 65 million, and certainly not vanishing. The boy’s casual western style clothing is typical of what is seen outside minority regions, and increasingly, even within.

And below you will find some more portraits from Vietnam by David Lazar:

Emperor’s Lake, Minh Mang Mausoleum, Hue

After School – Mekong Delta
NIKON D800 + 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 98mm, ISO 500, 1/250, f/5.3

Double Vision – Mekong Delta
NIKON D800 + 24-85mm f/2.8-4 @ 85mm, ISO 400, 1/250, f/8.0

Water Taxis – Mekong Delta

Visiting the Emperor – Emperor Minh Mang Mausoleum, Hue

Lost in Thought – Emperor Minh Mang Mausoleum, Hue

Beauty in a Red Ao Dai – Saigon
NIKON D800 @ 66mm, ISO 400, 10/1600, f/4.0

Incense in Pink – Hanoi
NIKON D700 @ 32mm, ISO 500, 1/80, f/3.0

#GuestPosts #Travel #TravelPhotography #Vietnam

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