Acclaimed French photographer Réhahn has travelled to and worked in 35 countries. Since 2011, he’s made his home in Vietnam, where he is working on a project to photograph all 54 of the country’s tribes. He reveals six highlights from his journeys across the fascinating, colourful country.
1. FAVOURITE CITY: HOI AN
Hoi An has been my home since I moved to Vietnam. For me, Hoi An is an open-air studio. A lot of buildings from the French colonial period have been well-preserved, and you also see architecture influenced by the Chinese, Japanese and more.
Yellow walls across the city offer cool backdrops for lifestyle photography. Early morning, from 5am to 7am, there are no tourists around, and I love walking, waiting for the sun to come onto every narrow alley, catching a young student on her bike or an old lady coming back from the market. And I have my Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum here, where I exhibit photos from my project to photograph Vietnam’s tribes.
2. FAVOURITE LANDSCAPE: TRA SU
It’s a peaceful place with almost no other tourists, 30 kilometres from the town of Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta, down in Vietnam’s south, near the Cambodian border. I love to spend time there, exploring the waterways and local villages.
It’s a massive area of mangrove forest and swamp with lots of interesting birds and animals. One of my favourite photos from there is a lady on a boat travelling through one of the channels, wearing the traditional Ao Dai dress, like many Vietnamese people who work for the government.
3: FAVOURITE PLACE TO EXPLORE: DONG VAN
The Valley of Dong Van in northern Vietnam is inhabited by 14 different ethnic groups. I spent many days there to find various different tribes to photograph.
The area’s much less known than Sapa, which is popular with travellers. Dong Van feels more like real rural life. Every five kilometres, you experience different architecture and different clothing, and it feels like crossing into different countries. Some people are harvesting hemp, some are working on costumes in front of their houses, and they always invite you to taste their rice alcohol.
4: FAVOURITE TRIBE: THE CHAM
I’ve met 49 out of the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam. I love them all but I had a very special time with the family of An Phuoc, a seven year old girl with incredible blue eyes. She’s from the Cham tribe, which specialises in pottery and making silk.
In her village, An Phuoc is known as the ‘girl with the cat’s eyes’. Her sister has one eye blue and one hazel. The family are now in my Giving Back project because the picture of An Phuoc is one of my bestselling photos. I bought a camera for An Phuoc’s sister, who wants to be a photographer, and a cow for the family and bikes for the girls. I visit the tribe several times every year.
5: FAVOURITE ROAD TRIP: MA PI LENG
I drive a motorbike in Vietnam which gives me a feeling of freedom I’ve felt nowhere else. Ma Pi Leng is one of the highest passes in Vietnam. The road from Meo Vac to Dong Van is called the ‘Happy Road’ by the locals.
I love riding my motorbike there and stopping on the top to admire the valley. It’s a ‘must do’ for any travellers when exploring the northern region of Vietnam. The scenery is incredible, with winding roads, towering mountains and green valleys.
6: FAVOURITE EXPERIENCE: BATIK MAKING
One of my most memorable experiences from travelling around Vietnam was making batik with the Hmong people in Pa Co village, in northern Vietnam. The Hmong decorate their traditional costumes with this ancient technique, which consists of drawing on hemp fabric with beeswax. The patterned textiles look beautiful.
Anyone heading to northern Vietnam to Halong Bay should take a detour to visit the Blue Hmong for a Batik workshop – a cool experience.
Réhahn has photographed 49 of Vietnam’s 54 tribes, and plans to visit more. Réhahn’s books include Vietnam: Mosaic of Contrasts (Vol 1 and 2) and The Collection: 10 years of photography.