I’m either going to get mugged here, or invited to dinner.
That was my thought as the guy grabbed my arm and pulled me down the narrow market alley. It turned out to be neither.
I was in Ba Chieu, a small marketplace 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 waved, some just stared, and others were reserved, but nonetheless curious as to what I was doing wandering around their neighborhood, camera in hand.
My newfound friend took me to the wet market where, with ancient rusting knives and shears, women gutted and prepared fish for sale. The white flesh was expertly separated from bones and slapped onto metal trays for customers to browse, while the remains were hosed into the gutters. I had to be careful not to slip on the slick of fish entrails. The smell began to rise with the heat and humidity of the day.
He directed me to one particular fishmonger and explained, with waving arms, that she was his wife. With a beaming smile, he indicated that he wanted me to make her portrait. She, on the other hand, wasn’t so enthusiastic, darting a sharp look and a few choice words in Vietnamese at my companion before hunching back down over her work, hiding her face under her conical hat. Unperturbed, my self-appointed guide moved me along.
I met what I presume was his extended family: grandmother, children, cousins, second cousins, and even their pets. A young man, possibly a brother, assumed directing duties and, cigarette firmly planted in the corner of his mouth, maneuvered his relatives into poses. He asked me in sign language to photograph them all, which I did to various degrees of success. Family elders sat patiently with wise expressions and a glint in their eyes. Younger generations played up to the camera, beaming toothy grins and play-fighting. The children were less interested, and had to be wrestled into position and held in place until they stayed still long enough for a single photo.
I photographed people at work, in contemplation, playing mah-jong. I photographed one delivery driver taking a nap among the chaos, balancing on his scooter with his feet up on 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 much. These people often motioned for 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 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 together. I was a distraction from their regular day. A diversion. I was their entertainment. One stall owner stopped me to compare the pale white skin of my calf to the dark brown of his, pointing out the contrast to his friends who sat nearby, smoking cigarettes and laughing.
I continued around the market, taking in the colors: the fresh greens of herbs, limes, and melons; the primary reds and blues of buckets holding live crabs, and the kaleidoscopic patterns on pyjama-like outfits worn by the women at the market. The heady smell of boiling pho broth mixed with petrol fumes from the swarming motorbikes and scooters began to make me feel light headed.
Up and down tiny alleyways. Past butchers cleaving cuts of meat on blood-spattered wooden blocks. Past ladies chattering while draining tofu, stained red hands peeling betel nut, mounds of dried shrimp and bags of rice, 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 and ready for school.
My ears became finely tuned to the sounds of the market. I was acutely aware of voices haggling over the price of a shirt and the beeps and honks of the traffic. I was ready to jump aside or press myself against the wall of a narrow alley at any moment to avoid being run over by a family on a motor scooter.
I nodded and smiled as I went, and those I passed returned the favor. Passing through the clothing section of the market, I stopped and chatted through hand gestures 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.
Eventually, I was 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 and observe over a piping hot bowl of noodles, or a strong, sweet cup of ca phe da.
Soon 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.” I followed. 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 goodbye.
My new friends. Known only for a sliver of time, but their openness and kindness never forgotten.