By Lester Ledesma
Daybreak in this part of the world is always the busiest time. I am on the banks of the Thu Bon River, watching the sun rise over a neighbourhood morning market. Here, buyers and sellers perform their time-honoured roles against a backdrop of moored boats and crumbling antique warehouses.
This locale is equal parts picturesque and busy with its endless jumble of greens, reds, browns and greys. The smell of fresh produce lingers in the air, mixed with sharp odour of butchered meat and dried fish. These stand in contrast to the fragrant aroma of broth steaming from the cauldrons of countless noodle soup vendors.
The sights, sounds and smells are typical of old-school markets here in Southeast Asia. However there is a strong sense of place, as seen in the conical non la hats on everyone’s heads. This is Vietnam, a country I have sorely missed since the pandemic began. I arrived last night in the heritage town of Hoi An, on the central coast, with a pent up desire to roam and shoot the way I used to do in the pre-Covid era.
This delightfully atmospheric place isn’t new to me: I’ve visited Hoi An repeatedly over the years, and have always returned with interesting new experiences. Many times I’ve poked around its ancient avenues, savoured its delectable cuisine and photographed its bustling street life.
But whereas on previous trips I carried a tiny Minox 35 camera for casual black-and-white film shooting, today I am packing a considerably more serious instrument: a Leitz-Minolta CL rangefinder.
It’s a curious blend of brands that could raise eyebrows among the less-informed. Indeed, once upon a time, a humble electronics manufacturer joined forces with a company that many consider to be photographic royalty. But this Japanese-German hybrid is much more than just a camera curiosity. Introduced almost 50 years ago, the CL was designed as a compact and affordable platform for M-mount lenses. It was blessed with many of the same features (read: built-in meter, multiple framelines and even parallax correction) inherent in bigger, more expensive M-model Leicas.
I bought my Leitz-Minolta CL off eBay in the midst of a Covid lockdown, and have been hankering for the chance to take it out for a real spin.
On this morning in Hoi An there’s only one type of shooting on my mind: street photography. I bring out a roll of Ultrafine Xtreme 100 and find a bit of space on a table to load the black and white emulsion. True to its Leica pedigree, the CL’s bottom half detaches to reveal the film chamber, and in a few moments I have it ready for action.
I snap my way through the market, switching between different lenses. Despite the Leitz-Minolta having framelines for only 40mm, 50mm and 90mm optics, my 7Artisans 35mm f2 pairs nicely since the CL’s entire viewfinder covers the 35mm focal length. My second lens – an M-mount adapted Industar-61LD 55mm f2.8 – pairs just as well, while the third and final Snapshot-Skopar 25mm f4 optic is serviced by an external viewfinder.
Good morning Vietnam
The morning sun shoots warm tropical light onto my playground, illuminating subjects in gorgeous backlight. Dodging an endless parade of xe may bikes and motos, I capture plenty of market scenes. Little old ladies smile shyly when I take their picture, while young kids watch curiously when I zero in on the local merchandise. I stop at a streetside stall for a breakfast of banh mi (baguette sandwich) and ca phe sua da (iced milk coffee) then resume exploring the rest of the town.
From the 16th to 19th Century, Hoi An was a bustling port of commerce where seafaring Chinese and Japanese merchants mingled with the local Viet natives. This mix of peoples turned the place into a melting pot, with structures that even today show its multicultural heritage.
At Tran Phu street I gawk at ancient homes that bear elements of Asian and European design, not far from 16th-Century clan temples adorned with flamboyant Chinese curves. At one end of town, a massive wood-and-stone bridge sports Japanese architecture. These I document along with little snippets of everyday life: a family riding on a three-wheeled cyclo, a local tailor sitting in a shop filled with faceless mannequins, a lone grandma lighting incense sticks during morning prayers. Quiet subjects like these are what I find truly fascinating about Vietnam.
Through it all, my Leitz-Minolta CL performs it duties cheerfully and with little complaint. While this particular unit operates smoothly and clicks nicely, I find that it underfocuses slightly below infinity – a bug that I fix by keeping in mind to overfocus a bit. That aside, this camera feels solid in the hand, with intuitive controls that help me easily react to photo-ops.
City of Lights
Shooting Hoi An on good old b&w film is satisfying enough for this happy photographer, but there is a situation where I find myself wishing (just slightly) that I packed some coloured emulsion as well. This is during the evenings, when the Hoi An riverside comes alive with countless fairy lights over the water.
Borne on the decks of native rowboats, these colourful paper lanterns provide illumination for oarsmen making their way down the Thu Bon River. I shoot this enchanting scene on my last night here, with Ultrafine Xtreme 400 rated at EI 800. Coloured or not – I hope my pictures capture the essence of Hoi An.