Indecision time or perhaps more appropriately “the indecisive moment” to keep it in line with an old photographic ideal, but I tend to prefer the Husker Du title. Zen Arcade, where it came from was all about a journey and at 17- 18 that became important. This picture represents something very specific to me, and could be either a wasted moment that could have been shared, or more likely something very personal, and very likely to keep me driving forwards.
This is the view from a small road- side cafe in the Hoi An area, but adjacent to the big blue sea, just around the corner from where we were staying. We moved to a hotel here after a few days in Hoi An town, because we wanted some sea: we’d missed it for so long, and after seeing China Beach we just knew we had to get back there. I think I’ve said before that we’ve lived recently in rural Scotland and then the Midlands, and have never felt further away from the sea than ever in the past 20 years or so.
The hotel whilst really nice had a very westernised menu and too many staff hanging around. We ended up eating here at this cafe every day for the next five days. Lunchtimes were sandwiches; evening meals were prawns, vegetables, rice and 333 beers. Oh, and there was a happy hour for wickedly strong G&Ts from 6- 8pm. Also their prices for washing clothes were unbelievably reasonable and quick.
It was nice to roll up, sit down, have a cocktail or two, order some food and watch the world go by. Tourists would speed back to Hoi An on bikes or scooters after a day at the beach, and tee shirt, cigarette and book sellers would trawl up and down looking for people to sell stuff to, but in a pretty laid back way. We noticed the tall guy sat on a tiny, red plastic seat just to the left of the sign, smoking a pack of cigarettes and drinking something small with coke on the first night. To be honest we couldn’t work out where he was from. He looked like a composite of Lee Marvin, Dale Dye and not a small amount of James Coburn, dressed in blue jeans, a white tee shirt, topped off with a grey crew cut, but seemed to fit into the buzz and sway of the night on the street like he’d been here all his life.
Every night he was there, happily snuck up on his tiny, red plastic stool by the side of the road, nodding knowingly to the street sellers and the cafe staff, playing with the kids and all the time methodically smoking a packet of cigarettes and sipping something small, but definitely topped off with coca cola.
On our final night in Hoi An, Debbie went up and asked him for a light and got talking to him. Turns out he was a US Military Advisor who had trained ARVN troops in the Hoi An area during the war. He’d never fully re-adjusted to life back in the US and would come here every year, and spend several months, sat by the side of the road watching the world go by, sat on the same tiny, red plastic stool, smoking some cigarettes and drinking something small with coca cola.
He said the food at the cafe was really good and that this was as close to the real Vietnam as you would find.
We don’t know, how could we? I’m a forty something Brit with a head full of war memories derived from films and late night album sessions. What I do know though is that I’m probably not cut out to be a full-on travel or documentary photographer: I couldn’t lift my camera surreptitiously, and I sure as hell couldn’t bring myself to ask the guy to take his portrait. Maybe in time, but not then.
The second indecisive moment of our Hoi An trip. The area around China Beach in Da Nang is being redeveloped as the Vietnamese military sell off bits of land for joint development with private enterprises. There’s large hotels, massive golf courses and new roads going up all the time, along with a huge international airport (direct flights to Moscow will be in place soon, so wealthy Muscovites can enjoy the beach, the silk shirts and Burger King at the airport): that’s a project worth going back to Da Nang and Hoi An to document. As for “James Coburn-Dale Dye- Lee Marvin” sat by the roadside next to the beach? I’ll maybe start by buying the man something small with coca cola.