Have you ever been to a place that takes your breath away? I have. In the summer of 2016, I volunteered in Hanoi, Vietnam, for about a month. My absolute life goal had always been to go to this famous chaotic Southeast Asian country, unique because of its cuisine and landscapes. After experiencing Vietnamese culture and getting to know all of the people I’d met that Summer, I was left with the desire to go back again. And so I did.
Fortunately, I met an Austrian man who was about to found an organization to build schools in small towns around the country. When he explained what he wanted to accomplish and how he intended to get there, he mentioned how difficult it was to get his project funded. After our conversation, I decided to make a documentary about the entire process and the day to day life of the Vietnamese. It would not only be an excuse to go back to Vietnam, but it would also turn out to be the experience of a lifetime because of the opportunity to truly help out a friend.
So I headed back to South East Asia this summer. After travelling around Cambodia and Myanmar, I went to Vietnam. There, I ran into some issues with the government as the village I needed to get to, required a special approval from the government for foreigners to enter. I arrived in the city of Dien Bien Phu near the frontier with Laos, famous for being the place that marked the independence of the country from the French. In Dien Bien Phu, I had to wait out the government’s approval for entering the town where the school was going to be built.
Dien Bien Phu is about 14 hours away from the capital, Hanoi, and surprisingly does not have many tourists. Indeed, I only met one individual that wasn’t a local: a Dutch person. Only my Vietnamese friend spoke English and few places sold non-Vietnamese meals. I enjoyed the tranquility of the city, but started feeling lonely over time.
Two weeks later, I decided to explore the surroundings of Dien Bien Phu while I had to wait, so I headed to Sapa. The monsoon season had unfortunately prevented me from exploring as thoroughly as I would’ve liked. It had also paused the construction of the school. I decided to visit as many things as I could on a motorbike, driving carefully through the mountains in the pouring rain. The landscapes were amazing, and once again Vietnam knew how to take my breath away.
Unfortunately, I feared the rain too much to take out my camera, and therefore I have few pictures of this trip. One day, however, while drinking tea with the host of the homestay, I heard loud noises and saw a group of children through the window racing on their handmade skateboards.
I got the chance to visit the Cat Cat village, but got disappointed by the consequences of mass tourism. There were too many children selling bracelets in their traditional clothes, and very few tourists who took the time to evaluate the consequences of their actions.
I stayed one more week before going back to my parents’ home, the Ivory Coast, in West Africa.
Cover: Isabel Bonnet