Category Archives: Vietnam

Stories that weave through my blog

I’ve been writing this blog since 2005, which is to say over twelve years. Sometimes there’s more, and sometimes I have less to say, but the average is about ten stories a month. That’s quite a bit of material; back-of-the-envelope it comes to more than 1,400 stories.

Of course, some are more weighty than others. But it will probably come as no surprise that some stories are serial and sequential, and build on each other through an adventure or fraught life event. 

Kumano Sanzen Roppyaku Po © Harold Davis

Kumano Sanzen Roppyaku Po © Harold Davis

The purpose of this meta-blog story is to point out a few of these embedded series, and to show you where you might start reading if you are interested.

The Birth of Katie Rose—My daughter was born very prematurely, and we didn’t know if she would survive. I photographed her in the NICU, and wrote about what was happening in real-time. You can start with First Look or The Birth of Katie Rose Davis (written after she came home and was out of danger).

Hands © Harold Davis

Hiking the Kumano Kodo—In 2013 I hiked the famous Kumano kodo pilgrimage trail in Japan. You can read about some of my adventures in Japan starting with Noriko Tries to Poison Me, and read about my hike starting with On the Kumano kodo.

Tree and Reflection, Nara © Harold Davi

Tree and Reflection, Nara © Harold Davis

Camino de Santiago—More recently, in the spring of 2018, I hiked a portion of this famous pilgrimage trail in Spain. My pilgrimage story starts with Beginning My Compostela.

Romanesque Bridge along the Camino © Harold Davis

Does the Wilderness Care About Me?—Back in 2005, I launched myself on an ill-prepared early season venture into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I survived to tell the tale that starts in A Walk on the Wild Side.

Alone I Stand © Harold Davis

Vietnam—In 2017 I visited Vietnam with my longtime friend Eric. Our ostensible goal was to visit the largest cave in the world, Son Doong. Along the way, we saw many strange and wondrous things, starting with the Long Bien Bridge that was important during the American-Vietnamese war because it connects Hanoi by rail with the port of Haiphong.

Son Doong Cave © Harold Davis

Cuba—In 2009 I visited Cuba with a photography group. You can read some of my observations starting with Fifty Years after the Cuban Revolution.

On the Cover © Harold Davis


Also posted in Cuba, Japan, Katie Rose, Writing

Son Doong Cave

The interior landscape of Son Doong Cave is ethereal and fantastic. Keep in mind that this mystical landscape is cloaked in darkness. The camera sees far more than the naked eye.

Son Doong Cave © Harold Davis


Parting of the Veil © Harold Davis


Entrance to the Secret Valley © Harold Davis

Also posted in Landscape, Photography

Darkness into Light

This spring I visited and spent a number of days and nights in the world’s largest cave, in the jungle mountains of central Vietnam. Fewer people have been to the cave than have been into space. This was a journey of 6,000 miles to the other side of the world, and an arduous trek through the jungle, down precipices, and across narrow and high bridges in the darkness with water gurgling far below.

For me, the appeal of visiting the world’s largest cave was less to do with the “cavey things”, or even the varied landscapes and portals of the cave, and more to do with where one begins to see the light. In other words, this was a spiritual quest as all journeys are, or should be.

A core component of my quest was to peer into darkness and distinguish the void from the light, to attempt to examine this darkness and light in the context of the basic structure of photography, which is also about darkness and light.

Stalactites, stalagmites, and other geological wonders of the speleology are fine in their place. This is a landscape that is quite difficult to photograph traditionally in the absolute darkness of the void, and in the absence of logical markers of scale that we see in a more normal landscape. A challenge is always intriguing, but difficulties aside, the speleological features don’t interest me photographically.

What does appeal to me is the cave as metaphor, and metaphorical experience. From darkness we are born, sometimes easily and sometimes with difficulty, and emerge from the cave naked into the light.

Cave Shadows © Harold Davis

We struggle towards the light, and live with what we see in the shadows. At the other end another dark tunnel awaits, with who-knows-what on the other side.

Let There Be Light © Harold Davis

This is the story of our lives—with love, passion, and our journey from darkness to light. In the end, this reverses and we return to the void. At its best, a compelling image can help put us in touch with a piece of this journey. Always we must wonder: are we looking at reality, whatever that may be, or at a pale shadow, flickering on the walls of our cave?

Also posted in Writing

Potemkin Water Wheel

This photo of kids playing on a river bank near a waterwheel is from a tribal village near Sapa in the north of Vietnam. The thing to observe is that the water wheel is not connected to anything.

Water Wheel © Harold Davis

In fact, the mountainous north of Vietnam is getting damned for hydroelectric power at a fast pace. Although this will certainly alter the landscape, it is probably for the best assuming that at least some of the power and prosperity benefits the local communities (although you know what they say about assumptions!).

But this water wheel, and the whole village it is in, are in effect a Potemkin artifact—constructed as a photo opportunity for gullible tourists.

The Reality of Sapa, Vietnam

From six thousand miles away, reading about Sapa in the Lonely Planet guide and on the internet, I thought the city would be as advertised: a serene portal to the mountains of North Vietnam with access to tribal areas and trekking. Up close, in Sapa, this is pretty much a joke. As you can see in the photo, Sapa is a busy place.

Sapa (click image to view larger) © Harold Davis

I made this image using multiple captures at different exposures from the second-floor balcony of my hotel room. What you can’t see from the photo is the noise: for starters, motorcycles roaring and karaoke blasting from the hotel behind me, later as darkness fell a roaring street party and bar scene.

What you also can’t see in this image is the extent of new construction going on in Sapa, most of it pretty ugly.

True, there are some nice mountains nearby. And Sapa is where you catch the gondola up the highest mountain in southeast Asia. But the tribal villages nearby are pretty much dressed up tourist attractions. And the Hmong people on the streets of Sapa are thrown like lambs to the slaughter of the tourist cycle that devours all authenticity.

As I wrote in my previous story on Sapa, while I expected Sapa to be somewhat touristic, I didn’t expect the crazy cultural dissonance I found. There’s more construction going on here than anywhere I’ve seen recently, up to and including the west side of Manhattan. There’s a street party going on right now that could be Times Square. From one side the noise of the partying on the streets meets loud Karaoke coming from the other.

Meanwhile, the tribal Hmong people are reduced to a kind of side show of street vendors (like the beautiful “black” Hmong shown in the photo) and persistent hawking of ersatz crafts by Hmong young and old.

It’s hard to see the construction boom here as anything other than a bubble fueled by easy money, and it is hard to see all this as ending well for the Hmong and other ethnic Vietnamese minorities, and hard to see visitors who aren’t the Disneyland types anything but quite disappointed.

Hang En Campsite

This is the first campsite on the way to Son Doong, just within the entrance to the Hang En cave. The trail leads down the rock slide you see in the foreground to the wooden bridge on the lower right. To get to the campsite, you wade across the underground river.

Hang En Campsite © Harold Davis

Hang En Campsite © Harold Davis

In the rather elaborate campsite itself, if you look closely you can see the tents of the paying participants in a line on the left, the dining pavilion in the center, and the cooking cluster of the porters on the right. The trail onward and through the Hang En cave leads along the river the curves to the right, and into darkness.

I made this photo with the late afternoon light coming through the cave opening, on my way down to the campsite and to a much needed swim in the lake!

Exposure info: Nikon D810, Zeiss 15mm f/2.8, five combined exposures with each exposure at f/8 and ISO 250, exposure times from 2 seconds to 30 seconds; tripod mounted; processed in Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photoshop.

Also posted in Landscape

Respite, Restoration, Catching Up and Moving On

I got back from Vietnam earlier this week. Tomorrow (Monday) I leave for France. So this has been a brief respite with my family here in California. Maybe time for mind over matter considering the substantial time-zone shifts in two different directions! A time for catching up and being together, and also a time for catching up by processing a few of the images from my recent travels.

Entering the Hang En Cave

To get to the Son Doong Cave you must first enter Hang En, then pass through the cave to exit into the hidden valley that contains the entrance to Son Doong. This panoramic composite shows the entrance of Hang En, looking out from just inside.

Inside the Entrance to Hang En Cave © Harold Davis

Inside the Entrance to Hang En Cave © Harold Davis

Mountains of the Far North

The otherworldly aspect of the mountainous landscape in the far north of Vietnam is partially offset in this image by the farm and fields sown int he foreground.

Mountains of the Far North © Harold Davis

Mountains of the Far North © Harold Davis

Related story: Mountains near Meo Vac.

Hmong Girl

I had fun photographing this girl beside the road, who was very friendly and I believe about the age of my daughter Katie Rose.

Hmong Girl © Harold Davis

Hmong Girl © Harold Davis

Related story: Flower Hmong Girl.

Floating Restaurants

These restaurants are in the bay opposite Cat Ba Island’s largest city. You call them, and they send out a launch. Photographed from the rooftop bar of our hotel in Cat Ba.

Floating Restaurants, Cat Ba Island © Harold Davis

Floating Restaurants, Cat Ba Island © Harold Davis

Related story: Cat Ba Island Sunset.

Fishing Boats

I photographed these fishing boats with a moderate telephoto focal length along the estuary in Dong Hoi, a provincial capital.

Fishing Bats, Dong Hoi © Harold Davis

Fishing Bats, Dong Hoi © Harold Davis

Related story: Yesterday and Tomorrow.

Saigon Fine Art Museum Stair

The Fine Art Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) houses an undistinguished collection that is poorly displayed. However, the buildings themselves of the museum, although badly in need of some maintenance, have some quite interesting French IndoChine architectural touches. The spiral stair in the building housing the antiquities part of the collection is shown here in two iPhone images.

Saigon Fine Art Museum Stair (Down) © Harold Davis

Saigon Fine Art Museum Stair (Down) © Harold Davis

Saigon Fine Art Museum Stair (Up) © Harold Davis

Saigon Fine Art Museum Stair (Up) © Harold Davis

Vietnamese Viagra

When a guy in Vietnam feels the need for an increase in, shall we say, manliness, potency, and virility, he reaches not for a little blue pill but rather for a concoction of snakes fermented in alcohol, such as the blend shown in a glass jar in the image.

Vietamese Viagra © Harold Davis

Vietamese Viagra © Harold Davis

If you want to try this at home, note that King Cobras are best. Thanks to my friend and traveling companion Eric Ryan for his wit, and for this caption. To the best of my knowledge these are farmed snakes (the Vietnamese army runs a snake farm in the Mekong River delta, where we photographed this jar of snakes), rather than wild or endangered species.

Also posted in Bemusements

Entrance to the Warlord’s Palace

In the early years of the twentieth century a Hmong warlord ruled in the remote and high mountains in the triangle between Vietnam, Laos, and China. Opium poppies were the source of his income and power.

Entrance to the Warlord's Palace © Harold Davis

Entrance to the Warlord’s Palace © Harold Davis

There’s some confusion as to who built the palace for the “King of the Hmongs”. The guidebook says it was built by the French. Our local guide credited the people the warlord ruled, as a kind of tribute. In any case, the warlord was clearly sought after by the great powers, and also handled all issues of life and death for those who lived under his sway.

Incidentally, like many a building of the rich and powerful, the entrance to the warlord’s palace is far grander than any of the chambers on the inside.

Also posted in Monochrome

Yesterday and Tomorrow

Danang is the third largest city in Vietnam, following Hanoi and HCMC (“Saigon”). The beach strip to the south of the city, across the road from the former US Army base, is being rapidly developed with high-end hotels and developments. Soon it will be a Vietnamese Miami Beach, or maybe Las Vegas.

Han River, Danang © Harold Davis

Han River, Danang © Harold Davis

The photo was taken from the walkway of the Dragon Bridge, which crosses the Han River above the port of Danang. The dragon snorts water! It exhales fire! Yes, it does! But only on Sundays and holidays. It is a post-modern stylized metal dragon.

The colorful fishing boats represent the fishing port Danang used to be; the modern bridge and buildings in the distance represent the future rushing to overwhelm what is past and soon to be gone forever.

© Harold Davis

Dragon Bridge © Harold Davis

Field Trip in Hue

At the tomb of the last king of Vietnam, near Hue, I saw these cute kids on a school field trip. It’s amazing how kids are kids the worldwide, regardless of cultural variations!

Field Trip © Harold Davis

Field Trip © Harold Davis

Regarding Scale and Wonderment

There’s something very tricky about creating images that capture a truly vast wonder of the world such as the Grand Canyon or the Son Doong Cave. The sense of scale is literally mind-boggling, so it is very hard to make a photo that allows the viewer to take in what is being portrayed; and, even if it can be taken in, it is hard to convey the emotional content of the scene when viewing it “for real”.

Scale and Wonderment © Harold Davis

Scale and Wonderment © Harold Davis

The typical way to deal with this scale problem is to forget about the wonderment. If you throw some people into the mix, the scale of the phenomena becomes visually obvious. Unfortunately, the resulting images are banal, commonplace, and usually look like travel brochure ads. 

My goal is to go for the wonderment and the sense of the spiritual. Although this image uses human scaling to some extent (if you look closely you can see the tents of our expedition, and the porters around their kitchen) the proportions and scaling would work without the human element. With or without the tents, this is an image that requires careful visual analysis to discern the clouds far below (the cave generates its own weather system) and the sizing of the distant mountains, valleys, opening to the sky, and other topographic features.

Also posted in Landscape, Photography


Son Doong Cave—Wind River Cave—is located in the impenetrable mountainous jungles along the old Ho Chi Minh trail on the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam-Laos border. To get to the cave, you have to slog down a jungle mountainside, up a river bed, then through another vast cave. The exit on the far side of this first cave opens on the otherwise inaccessible valley that is the starting point for entering the Son Doong Cave. We were told by our expedition leader that fewer people have been to Son Doong than have been to space.

Portals © Harold Davis

Portals © Harold Davis

Within the cave, there are vast areas open to the jungle above. These never scaled heights let in shafts of light, unusual flora, and the occasional monkey descending on vines.

To get the picture, think one part Avatar, one part the glittering caves of Aglarond from the Lord of the Rings, one part Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes (the original books, not any of the film versions)—with an added pinch of Eustace’s adventures on the Dragon Island in the third book of the Narnia series.

Also posted in Landscape, Photography

Eric in Son Doong

Son Doong is the world’s largest cave, located in the remote mountains along the Ho Chi Minh trail on the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam-Laos border. This photo shows Eric in Son Doong on top of an unnamed formation in Doline 2 within the cave. In caver’s lingo, a “doline” is an breakthrough opening to the outside world above, in this case the untrackable and wild jungle.

© Harold Davis

Eric in Son Doong © Harold Davis

Tom Toa Church Steeple

On a quiet, gray day Eric and I walked along the banks of the Nhat Le River. This river bisects the city of Dong Hoi, a provincial capital in central Vietnam.

Pretty soon we came upon the steeple of a ruined church (shown below) in a fenced enclosure in a small riverside park. It has been preserved in its ruined state, according to the plaque at the site, as evidence of the war crimes of the American aggressor when the church was bombed into ruins in 1965.

Tam Toa Church Steeple © Harold Davis

Tam Toa Church Steeple © Harold Davis

Also posted in Monochrome