Photo Essay: Rural Vietnam — Cue the Water Buffalo, Stage Right

By June 30, 2016Photo Essays, Vietnam

Vietnam rice fields

Putting on a show for the tourists in Nha Trang

At first glance, it’s an idyllic scene — farmers in rural Vietnam tending to their rice fields with primitive tools while a small herd of water buffalo peacefully grazes in the foreground.  If it weren’t for the electricity poles visible in the background, it’s a scene that one would have imagined in the Vietnamese countryside centuries ago.

But pictures don’t always depict reality.

In this case, what I photographed was a scene staged just for us — two busloads of tourists who had paid about $100 each to tour rural Vietnam while our cruise ship was docked near the port city of Nha Trang.

As we filed out of the buses in the middle of the afternoon, we were told by our guide that we would be seeing a “demonstration” of what life was like for local farmers.  However, afternoons in Vietnam can be stiflingly hot and humid and the locals typically do their outdoor work early in the mornings, at about the same time we were stuffing our faces at the breakfast buffet on the ship.

So, our guide explained, the farmers would be reenacting their daily routine just for the benefit of us and our cameras.  As far as I as could tell, they weren’t really accomplishing anything other than looking good for the photo-op.  With some farmers wearing traditional Vietnamese bamboo hats known as non la, their hoes banged aimlessly against the ground while our group clicked away.

I remember reading in the tour brochure that we would also see water buffalo, an iconic symbol of rural Vietnam.

“Where are the buffalo?” I asked the guide, thinking it would be nice to have something eye-catching and quaint to add to the foreground of my photos.  Plus, it was in the brochure and I was determined to get every penny of my $100 investment in the tour.  The guide was silent but gave me a look as if to say: “Relax, you uptight American.  You’ll get your silly picture.”

Nha Trang market

A more “authentic” scene at a Nha Trang market

Right on cue, I heard the jingle of bells and a small herd of water buffalo was paraded across the field and began grazing right in front of us.  Our cameras clicked away at an even faster rate than before.

I had my coveted photo.  But it’s lack of authenticity left a sour taste in my mouth and swayed me not to include it in a batch of pictures I submitted to a newspaper, which published an article I wrote about the cruise.

As a travel writer and photographer, I often come across scenes that are less than authentic.  This is increasingly becoming a problem for seasoned travelers as places that used to be off-the-beaten-path are now becoming overridden with visitors.  It can sometimes be difficult to determine what’s real and what’s staged to make the tourists happy.

In this case, the scene was clearly staged.  That’s not to say, though, that the entire day had been a southeast Asian fairytale.  We also had visited a local market in Nha Trang, a city of about 400,000 people on the country’s south-central coast.

If you want authenticity, visit a local market and watch the locals shop for locally grown fruits, vegetables and the indeterminable body parts of all sorts of animals you’re not likely to see on the shelves at your local Safeway.

As our time at the rice fields concluded, our guide asked us to board the bus so we could head to our next stop on the tour.  We had to be back on the ship in time for dinner.  Lobster-tail was on the menu.

As our buses drove away, I could see the farmers drop their hoes as the water buffalo were led back to their corral.

Exit, stage right.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2016