“I’m not a photographer, so please don’t call me one. It doesn’t feel right…” Nguyen Van says modestly. But wandering through the wonderful world he has created on his Instagram @odaucungchup, you’d not just call him a photographer, but one who has a way of capturing beautifully poignant moments, and scenes of calm in the bustle of Saigon.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
“So, how would I introduce myself?” Nguyen asks softly. “Probably as someone who’s having a love affair with Saigon!” So, he’s a reluctant photographer, but he’s proudly passionate about the city he’s called home for the last ten years. As you can see from his @odaucungchup Insta-account. But if he’s not a photographer, then what, we ask, is he? “I’m engaged in the act of capturing moments…that’s all.”
Like any love affair, his relationship with Saigon has had its ups and downs. “I think it’s that roller-coaster ride that’s made me have these strong feelings,” he shrugs. “So I started to create a place for myself where I could share the moments I serendipitously recorded. That’s @odaucungchup.”
The authenticity of his images – which are usually accompanied by a line or two of text – resonate with anyone familiar with the city. And they’ve helped him build a dedicated fanbase. We wonder how he describes his style. “I guess ‘life style’ rather than ‘lifestyle’”, he says after thinking long and hard, “because my pictures are mostly of everyday life. A peaceful street, a leafy green tree, a motorbike gliding past, or the lottery ticket seller…or the clouds, the sky, the sunset or the dawn which are all beautiful here in Saigon…”
Nguyen Van is especially fascinated by Cholon – the area around District 5, often referred to as Saigon’s Chinatown. “The feeling of living here is very different from the rest of Saigon. The Chinese retain a lot their cultural heritage, both spiritually and visually. Then there’s the bustling energy of the streets and markets (which seem to have everything), and the surprisingly peaceful rhythm of the lives of the local people.”
If one colour dominates his images, it’s the ubiquitous Vietnamese yellow of old apartments, museums and government buildings. “It’s a peaceful colour too, and nostalgic, especially when the morning light or late afternoon sun illuminate a shophouse or corridor…”
“Which reminds me of one of my favourite pictures I took. I captured it in the afternoon, passing by an old apartment building in District 11 which I’d never seen before. At that moment, a grandma and her grandchild passed by. It happened by chance at that moment. Many people ask how can I be so lucky to capture these moments. Well, because I love Saigon so much, this is how the city repays me!”
The image led Nguyen Van to remember his own grandmother, from his earliest memories of her fierce energy, up to the long illness she suffered – which he helped her through until she sadly passed away. Present and past. The subtle angles of his camera help him to capture simple moments that cultivate deep emotions. The text he added is a personal reminiscence of his own grandma: Bà ơi /là ào ơi mấy tiếng ban chiều thuở bé/
Of course, for someone reluctant to be called a photographer, Nguyen Van has no intention of becoming a professional. But he’s grateful that somehow his work has helped him to grow up more quickly than his peers. “I feel like I’ve matured more quickly than those around me. My work has made me think about things more sincerely, it’s made me more positive about life and its imperfections.”
He’s quick to show us the kit he uses to take his shots: “My favourite Sony camera and my motorbike that helps me to go everywhere in Saigon.” That’s often with a buddy at the wheel to free him up to shoot. And finally “and most importantly” he carries around his passion for the places he passes…
#1 The bridge over Nguyen Tri Phuong and 3/2 streets
Typically, when people think of Saigon, it’s of a messy picture with motorbikes and people scattered everywhere. But through the lens of Nguyen Van, Saigon is busy, but calm with green trees and sunlit streets.
“This moment was taken when I stopped in the middle of the bridge over Nguyen Tri Phuong and 3/2 Street in District 10. Everyone imagines this street as a congested ‘hot spot’, so when I posted this photo, everyone was surprised that Saigon could be as green and peaceful as this. Saigon really can be like this, but we’re often in too much of a hurry to notice.”
#2 A wife shaving her husband
Saigon’s skyline has been expanding upwards. But beneath the towering skyscrapers and modern apartment blocks are these old apartments. And in this shot, Nguyen Van captures a scene of a wife cutting her husband’s hair and giving him a shave.
“It was a fiercely hot day in District 4,” Nguyen Van remembers, “and the mossy yellow-coloured walls and the stringy wiring contrasted with the ultra-modern apartments you see cropping up elsewhere in town. And that’s what gives this its idyllic feeling…and the love and compassion between two humans shown in the simplest of acts.” Add to that the line Nguyen Van has added. “Tui với bà hồi đó ai tỏ tình trước he?” the wife asks, or “Who confessed their love to who first?”
“The story I portrayed in this picture was drawn from a number of love stories I heard growing up, told by my parents and aunts in the countryside. In the past, love lasted a lifetime, when my aunts and uncles, and even my parents, expressed their devotion quietly in the things they did for each other and a gentle question here and there. It takes a lot of love to care for each other and take care of such small things, right “
#3 Landmark 81 at dawn and dusk
Still, as the Landmark 81 building towers above the surrounding apartment blocks, the image has the same serenity as lots of Nguyen Van’s other works. “People often dream of watching the sunrise through the mist of a Dalat morning or taking in the last rays of sun on a beach in Phu Quoc. But few people stop in front of Saigon’s tall buildings to watch the dawn or dusk…”
However, Saigon has these incredible colours everywhere. “I remember the day I took this. I woke up at 4am to catch the dawn on Diamond Island in District 2, and then wandered around until dusk to hunt for some beautiful sunsets.” This was the unexpected result. And the image, which combines dawn (hừng đông) and dusk (chiều tà) has become Nguyen Van’s best-loved @odaucungchup image.
Photos of Nguyen Van by Khooa Nguyen