What a Lost Camera Taught Me about Fate in Hoi An, Vietnam

October 9, 2015
gp, vietnam, vietnam inspiration
What a Lost Camera Taught Me about Fate in Hoi An, Vietnam

I broke one of my ironclad Rules of Travel getting from Da Nang’s airport to Hoi An, Vietnam.  No taxis. Then after my camera took off in that taxi’s back seat, I took another to chase it down.

After negotiating the seething mass of movement, miasma, and neon that is Saigon followed by days of shivering in the persistent misty fog of Da Lat’s valleys, I was ready for the caress of coastal Hoi An and its Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. You know how it is—there are so many miles on your travel pack that the dust on it weighs more than the threadbare remnants of clothing inside. Your mind requires clearing.

I gave myself a pep talk: Buck up, woman! It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to you; you’ve had cancer.

Hoi An’s rich history as a port and trading center resides in the ancient Chinese temples, spice warehouses-turned-restaurants, and lively riverfront. When the port silted up after a thousand years and the coast receded a few miles, the focus of the town became its dynamic market, gorgeous architecture, and hundreds of tailors.  Hoi An is the spot to replace those worn travel clothes. My plans included purchasing a skirt to replace one split up the backside while riding a motorbike through potholes in Cambodia, and a silk jacket so I could at least pretend to dress up if opportunity arose. My companion needed trousers.

Keen expectations took a turn toward dismay with the camera’s loss. We were briefly buoyed by the guesthouse clerk’s offer to phone the taxi driver. He was headed to the Da Nang train station with another fare who claimed innocence about our camera. Hopes dashed, we crouched on the sidewalk outside the guesthouse, discouraged. Which is how a man named Tranh found us, offering his taxi to rush to the station. We grasped this last straw, but when we reached Da Nang, our camera and its new owners were on their way to Saigon.

We rode back to Hoi An, silent. My travel partner and I barely traded a glance, careful not to lay blame about the camera. That’s another of my Rules of Travel: be uncommonly kind to others during transition days between locales, when you’re most anxious, sweaty, moving into yet another unfamiliar place, and likely to get lost in the process.

It wasn’t the money, I thought, it was the memories in hundreds of photos lost. A month of travel through Cambodia and southern Vietnam. Who was I kidding? Of course it was the money, too! Buying another camera meant the loss of travel funds. Our budget was stretched thin to provide maximum travel time.

Tranh caught my eye in his rearview mirror. “Barbara, do you believe in fate?” I wasn’t sure what I believed. He began to tell his story.

Tranh joined the South Vietnamese Army at age 18, and learned English working with American Special Forces. Choosing sides in the civil war forever altered his future. He married and had children, but his home was burned and food stores destroyed.

When Saigon fell in 1975, Tranh spent two years in a reeducation camp. For 10 years, he and his wife were not allowed to work; his 5 children could not attend school. Persevering, Tranh learned mechanic’s skills, fixing cars for anyone who risked hiring him, but those jobs were scarce. A Buddhist, Tranh believed he was fated to go through those awful times.

In moments, my perspective on the camera’s loss changed. I gave myself a pep talk: Buck up, woman! It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to you; you’ve had cancer. Cancer was the worst thing. You’ll be angry for a couple of days, then you’ll get over it and it will become a travel tale.

Decades after the war, there were people in town who would not sit down with Tranh for a cup of coffee; emotions remained high. We invited him to lunch, sharing egg rolls and a Hoi An specialty, Cao Lau: roast pork with wide noodles. His sister, Bich (beek) spotted us through the restaurant window and joined in. Bich was a brilliant tailor; 24 hours later she had replaced my torn skirt and presented me with a copper-rose silk jacket along with a powerful hug.

For days I wandered Hoi An’s lanes and waterfront. I crossed the bridge to Cam Nam island on foot and returned in a boat hand-poled by an ancient woman wearing a nón lá, the conical hat of Vietnam. I shopped the market and tried to identify mysterious foods, rode a rickshaw in the rain, found peace in temples with only incense for company. Eventually, I found a replacement camera.

There are so many miles on your travel pack that the dust on it weighs more than the threadbare remnants of clothing inside. Your mind requires clearing.

Our last morning in Hoi An, an elderly man watched my partner and I prepare to depart. Across the street he called, “Was your camera returned?” We shook our heads. Lighting a hand-rolled cigarette, he apologized. “People in Hoi An are honest and good,” he said. We agreed and wished him well. When the motorbikes arrived to take us to the train station, I climbed on. Adjusting my pack, I turned to see him waving goodbye.

Hoi An, a city central in Vietnam’s geography and history, helped to center me on my journey. I lost a camera and hundreds of photos but learned that in abandoning the Rules of Travel you may find fate, the compassion of strangers, and understand how a lens can come between you and authentic experience.

hoi an, vietnam

Photo credit: Barbara Gabriel

About Barbara Gabriel

AvatarBarbara is a writer and traveler who has been gathering material for fifty years while impersonating a yacht chef, cruise director, ice cream scooper, sailor, child advocate, landscaper, package designer, dive master, log cabin builder, and a really bad waitress. Currently Austin, Texas-based, she grew up in Minnesota along Highway 61, ran away to sea in her late 20s, and has traveled, lived and eaten in North and South America, Turkey, North Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. Barbara writes about travel and life on her site http://stealjustoneday.com Her writing has been published elsewhere in I Love Journeys, Poetry24, Wild Goose Poetry Review and in the anthology American Society: What Poets See (FutureCycle Press).

12 thoughts on “What a Lost Camera Taught Me about Fate in Hoi An, Vietnam

  1. vietnam
    November 23, 2015
    Reply

    I love this article! It is really nice

    • Avatar
      Barbara Gabriel
      November 23, 2015
      Reply

      Thank you!

  2. Avatar
    November 7, 2015
    Reply

    A great story, Barbara. Once again you have taken me to places I’ll never see and introduced me to people I’ll never meet. Thank you and sorry about the camera, but glad you found out what was really important here.

    • Avatar
      Barbara Gabriel
      November 7, 2015
      Reply

      And a tremendous thanks to you, Glenda for reading the stories, taking the time to comment, and the willingness to travel alongside me–if only vicariously.

  3. Avatar
    Jolene Strom
    November 6, 2015
    Reply

    I love the way that a loss of technology opened you up to a chance encounter, with a man and his sister, and brought more humanity to your trip. You probably learned much more from chatting with them, than by the distraction that a camera affords.

    Pictures are nice for reflecting on later, but the important part of the trip is the memories in your own mind.

    • Avatar
      Barbara Gabriel
      November 6, 2015
      Reply

      Absolutely right. That’s a message I need to repeat to myself with each trip. I dumped my phone, computer, and all electronic connections for my most recent trip and still feel like I want to hug that wonderful experience to my chest. Thanks for reading!

  4. Avatar
    Francine
    October 9, 2015
    Reply

    Fabulous story! I especially liked one of your “Rules of Travel: be uncommonly kind to others during transition days between locales, when you’re most anxious, sweaty, moving into yet another unfamiliar place, and likely to get lost in the process”. This is a rule I hope to adopt when I feel that anxiety come to pass in my life.

    • Avatar
      Barbara Gabriel
      October 9, 2015
      Reply

      It’s interesting, isn’t it, how rules for travel could just as easily pass for rules of life. Thanks for taking time to read and to comment.

  5. Avatar
    Angela Giese
    October 9, 2015
    Reply

    Lovely, Barbara!
    HoiAn was one of my favorite cities to visit in Vietnam. I loved being able to walk around the town by myself. I felt safe. The shops and restaurants were wonderful. Caught a beautiful scene of a group of Vietnamese children singing songs in a local corner shop. Loved the lanterns hanging by the bridge. I had a beautiful Vietnamese dress made at a local shop.

    About the camera….it wasn’t in HoiAn, but further north I dropped my camera in the South China Sea — a $900 camera! It worked no more, but my pictures on my card were saved. Thank goodness for cell phone photos! We travel alike! 🙂

    Love your descriptive view and experiences of your visit to HoiAn.

    • Avatar
      Barbara Gabriel
      October 9, 2015
      Reply

      Yes, I remember the lanterns! I stopped by a shop where they were being made by hand. Thank you for reminiscing with me.

  6. Avatar
    Brian
    October 9, 2015
    Reply

    I love this piece! Not only does it conjure up a vivid sensory picture of Vietnam and close-to-the-ground travel in general, it also demonstrates the power and utility of reflection amongst the compression of experiences that make up life on the road.

    • Avatar
      Barbara Gabriel
      October 9, 2015
      Reply

      It takes both energy and stillness to be able to reflect on your travel experiences while still in the midst of having them. Sometimes an event like losing your camera, while awful, gives you that space. Thanks for reading!

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