I’m either going to get mugged here or invited to dinner, I thought as the guy grabbed my arm and pulled me down the narrow market alley. It turned out to be neither, but his intentions were friendly.
I was in Cho Ba Chieu (Ba Chieu Market), in Saigon’s Binh Thanh District, and it was apparent the locals here were not used to seeing a foreign face. Some shouted greetings and waived, some just stared; others were more reserved but curious nonetheless at what I was doing in their neighborhood.
I photographed people at work, in contemplation, playing mah-jong. I photographed one delivery driver taking a nap while balancing on his scooter, resting his back against the handle bars.
They smiled or laughed out loud when they saw themselves on the screen. Some were pleased with the result, others not so. These people often motioned me to try again until they felt they were portrayed at their best. The older ladies had the most cheek. One pointed to her friend and laughed while making a face imitating her expression in the photograph. This was met with a few sharp words and a playful backhand to the upper arm.
No one asked for payment, as often happened in the areas of the city frequented by tourists. They didn’t seem to want anything from me except to connect and spend some time. I was a distraction from their regular day. A diversion. I was their entertainment. One stall owner stopped me to stand next to me and compare the pale white skin of my calf to his own dark brown, pointing out the contrast to his friends who were sat nearby smoking their cigarettes.
I continued around the market, taking in the colours and heady smell of boiling pho broth mixed with petrol fumes from the swarming motorbikes and scooters. I wandered. Up and down tiny alleyways, past butchers cleaving cuts of meat on blood spattered wooden blocks, ladies chattering while draining tofu, stained red hands peeling betel nut, past mounds of dried shrimp and bags of rice, past baskets of chillies, coriander, Vietnamese mint, lemongrass and morning glory. Past an elderly lady cooking a crab dish on a tiny gas burner for her grandson, who was dressed ready for school. My ears became finely tuned to the sounds of the market, ready to jump aside or press myself against the wall of a narrow alley at any moment to avoid being run over by an entire family on a motor scooter.
I nodded and smiled as I went, and received nods and smiles in return. Passing through the clothing section of the market, I stopped and chatted through sign language to a young tailor mending a pair of trousers. He offered me one of his fried rice snacks and his friend thought it hilarious that I would want to make his photograph.
After several passes, I became part of the scenery. People returned to their tasks and I was able to move and photograph uninhibited. I took breaks now and then to sit and refuel with a piping hot bowl of noodles or ca phe da and observe. Eventually it was time to leave, or so I thought. On my way out I was taken by the arm again. This man spoke a little English: “You come make picture my family”. And so I did. I met and photographed his wife, mother, grandmother- “90 year old!” he told me proudly- children, cousins and second cousins. We laughed together and shared a bowl of spicy peanuts before it really was time to leave. I walked to the market exit and looked back to see the entire family standing by their fruit and vegetable stall waving me goodbye. My newfound friends. Their openness and kindness never forgotten.