Around the world in 80 days – Part 4: Vietnam

25 April 2013

vietnam still

Rush hour in Vietnam, a bipedal frenzy of noise and colour.

Over the course of four months, Barry Gibb visited our major overseas programmes in Africa and Asia to make a film about Wellcome Collection’s Art in Global Health project. In the fourth of his journal entries, Barry goes to Vietnam.

It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to traveling. One month after returning from Kenya and Malawi I was now off to Vietnam to start the first leg of the next filming double whammy. No butterflies, no hesitation, visas secured, bags packed, bloodstream flowing with (the antimalarial drug) Malarone. Of course, any feelings I had of being in control were completely misguided.

This sense of being out of control didn’t quite hit me immediately on arriving in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City; taxis and hotels have a wonderful way of mollycoddling you, protecting you from the very thing you’re trying to experience: culture. However, having checked-in around lunchtime, the first thing I needed was to eat, so off I went, gamely entering ‘real Vietnam’ to find a restaurant. That’s probably when the culture shock started to manifest itself.

The first thing that overwhelms you, beyond the humidity and heat, are the bikes – hundreds and hundreds of mopeds and motorbikes continuously driving on the roads… and the pavements. The streets are awash with them, a sea of colourful, noisy machines. Those not riding bikes are sitting on pavements, as if the only way the Vietnamese can move is when attached to a two-wheeled machine, a strange illusion enhanced by the many masks worn by the riders (apparently, this is not to avoid pollution but to prevent tanning…).

These bikes are used for everything. They carry newborns home from the hospital with mum and dad, transport fresh food, half a dozen crates of beer or a ridiculous number of five gallon water containers. They are the noisy, frantic locomotive lifeblood of the city.

In the first hour I was almost hit by a speeding bike twice. It would be easy to blame such carelessness on jetlag but it was really just cultural ignorance. In the UK, we tend to move quickly, or run out of the way of oncoming traffic. This is the precise opposite, I discovered, of what the Vietnamese do. Here, the appropriate way to move through traffic – no matter how dense – appears to be to glide slowly, deliberately, from one point to another. This is so counterintuitive, the only way I could do it and remain calm was by thinking of Bruce Lee’s instructions from Enter the Dragon: “Be like water”.


The next day I headed out to the Vietnam Research Programme and Oxford University Clinical Research Unit (OUCRU) and the jetlag had well and truly landed. Unfortunate, as I was about to meet Mary Chambers, in charge of all things public engagement, and Jeremy Farrar, OUCRU’s Director (and, little did I know at the time, soon-to-be Director of the Wellcome Trust!).These initial meetings were so vital. The most important thing I wanted to establish, in the short time we had, was a level of trust; that I was there to help, if possible, the Centre communicate its essence and ambitions. Mary and Jeremy were great in this respect and we quickly nailed the direction of the scientific interviews. Vietnam has undergone incredible change in the last 15 years, leaving behind its turbulent past to embrace a dynamic future, so we decided it would be good to use this theme of transformation for a (forthcoming) short film all about OUCRU.

I then went about the task of interviewing a steady stream of scientists in what was one of the most difficult filming days I’d had. Due to the strict laws concerning filming in Vietnam, we needed to film the interviews inside OUCRU, so was faced with what I call the filmmakers’ dilemma: visually boring, generic interior interviews with reasonably safe audio or visually interesting external (balcony) shots with noisy audio? I simply couldn’t bring myself to do the interviews inside – having come all the way to another country, I wanted to get a sense of it, so outside we went.

It rained, there was a storm, there was the ubiquitous growl of bikes (of course), the composition wasn’t right, the wind was too strong… For the sake of my sanity, a few of the interviews were done inside just, it seemed, at the moment the kitchen staff had decided they needed to do a lot of things with loud metal utensils. By the end of the day, I was physically and mentally exhausted, feeling that I’d let myself and the Centre down badly. Only when I got back to the hotel and had a chance to listen did I realise things weren’t as bad as I’d thought. An important reminder of why it’s great to work in teams – as a solo operator, trying to keep an eye on the interviewee, the camera, the sound, you can easily get distracted by any one imperfection, making for a frustrating experience.

The scientists spoke of their work with pride, the difficulties of being a scientist in Vietnam – learning English being one large additional ‘task’ they must add to their workload in order to both read and write their own scientific papers. They also spoke of the importance of family and it was at this point I started to grasp how matriarchal this society is: in Vietnam, women are strong and highly respected.

A bike into the unknown

My jetlag was even worse the next day – having to perform at a high level when exhausted is simply no fun. The plan was to film as much ‘science’ as I could, to wander throughout the labs capturing shots of these scientists at work. With hindsight, I’d been spoilt, given the kind of access other filmmakers could only dream of after passing through numerous bureaucratic hoops.

One of the best moments occurred just outside the bacteriology lab. One minute I was filming scientists at microscopes, the next, a ceremony for the dead. A table, covered in offerings and incense had been placed in the corridor just outside the main lab. Adorned with flowers, duck, beer, chicken, I assumed this scrumptious platter was for lunch. Until a procession of people respectfully approached the table, gave what looked like a short prayer, then lit some incense.

Within moments, the air was thick with symbolic smoke. It turned out that this ceremony was to help feed the dead who may have become lost en route to wherever it is the dead go. As in Africa, it was hard not to be struck by the juxtaposition of science and cultural beliefs. Dressed in lab coats, within feet of state-of-the-art lab equipment, the dead were feasting on the love (and roast duck) of the living. This was something so uniquely personal to the location, so bewilderingly alien to my Scottish sensibilities, and one of my favourite moments from my time in Vietnam.

My second favourite moment was meeting OUCRU’s artist-in-residence, Lena Bui. Charming, enigmatic and infectiously happy, Lena absorbed science like an intellectual sponge. She clearly relished the scientists’ way of seeing the world, coming to terms with what they found interesting or perplexing. For the main interview, we’d decided to go to her studio. What I didn’t realise was the only way to complete the journey was on a bike. Lena rolled up, asking me to hop on at which point I had to make the humbling admission that motorbike riding was absent from my repertoire of skills.

Lena was amazed – how was it possible to get this far in life without riding a bike? Searching for an excuse to walk to her studio, I also pointed out that the tripod and camera bag were way too bulky and heavy. Having none of it, this waif lifted them both onto the bike like they were sticks, cast me a look over her shoulder and instructed me to get on. Suddenly I was in a movie, featuring a bike riding heroine as she drove her inept sidekick through the hot, chaotic streets of Vietnam.

Lena is deeply interested in the interrelationships between animals and humans, how we relate to, touch, use them and how, in turn, this relates to disease. A scientist would say she is interested in zoonosis but Lena had a way of making these relationships sound quite poetic and profound. After an excellent interview, she tried to take me to a special place she’d found a couple of hours drive (by car) and a ferry ride away, past all the new buildings and engineering work springing up around the city. This, I was told, is where a flock of swifts come to roost and, if you timed it right, you’d receive a spectacular display as they pulsed and swirled in harmony.  However, a storm had other ideas and we had to turn back in the midst of the darkest skies and heaviest rain I had ever seen.

My disappointment was tempered as my third favourite Vietnam moment soon arrived. Keen to capture footage that could help tell the story of Lena’s interest in our relationship with animals, Mary Chambers had offered to take me to one of the main food markets, early the next morning. My feeling was that a hefty EX1 camera would be too conspicuous in a public market, so I went instead for my SLR, the Canon 550D, a brilliant, ‘stealth cam’ allowing me to look like an average tourist.

Walking around one market, Mary treated me to a local speciality, something that felt like a collision of rice pudding and alfalfa. It was lovely to see Mary in her element, talking with locals, old friends. She’d moved out to Vietnam around 12 years ago, embracing the culture, the language and life. At one of the indoor stalls, Mary bought me a gift, a waving cat statue (it waves in the luck), which now sits in my house, mystifying my two, more organic, cats.

There followed a spectacular morning of filming. Fish being descaled and gutted, intestines and organs glistening in the morning light, fresh meat being carved, sliced and cut. Everywhere, people were immersed in the flesh of other animals; it was beautiful, relevant and incredibly visceral. From the worst day’s filming, to the best – this offered a brilliant example of the fabric of Ho Chi Minh City, chaotic and unpredictable it may be but it is also spectacularly vibrant and full of life. I was going to miss this place.

Barry Gibb

Barry Gibb is a Science Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust.