Meeting Vietnam, face to face

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Old people are Croquevielle's favorite subjects / PHOTOS COURTESY OF RÉHAHN CROQUEVIELLE

At 34, Réhahn Croquevielle has traveled to as many, if not more countries than the number of years he has been on this earth.

The inveterate traveler and photographer has hit a "block," though.

Two years ago, he moved to the famous Hoi An Town in the central province of Quang Nam, and has stayed there longer than anywhere else besides his home land.

He now runs an ice cream bar with one of his Vietnamese friends, but still spends lots of time riding his motorbike around the country, on his own or with his friend, taking photograph.

Croquevielle has visited many places in Vietnam, from crowded and noisy cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, famous tourist destinations like Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa to "wild" northern highlands localities like Mu Cang Chai and Dong Van.

Vietnam is a "paradise" for people who love taking photos of landscapes, Croquevielle said.

But the Frenchman, a native of the Normandy region, is not much interested in landscapes.

In fact, most of the 5,637 photos that he has taken so far in Vietnam are portraits of people he has met during his trips.

Photos of landscapes are relatively similar, because many photographers choose almost the same place to capture the same view, while for portraits, each person is different, he said.

"Moreover, I like to talk with people, and I need to feel them and see them smiling."

Croquevielle said he is especially attracted to old people who have "many lines on their face that reflect their experience," and children who are "always natural."

"Vietnamese people have a hard life that can be read on their face when they become old," he said.

As a portrait photographer, Croquevielle said he does not set any criteria for choosing his subjects, but follows his "feeling" and depends on luck.

When he finds his models, he would speak to them in the Vietnamese he has learnt on his own, make them smile, and ask for permission to take their photographs.

The Frenchman believes that "in Vietnam, if you smile, all doors are opened."

But, if he is turned down, he respects the people's choice and never tries to convince them, because he "hates to steal photos."

On the other hand, "every photo that I take has a story behind it," he said.

Croquevielle said he has had lots of memorable encounters in Vietnam.

For instance, he recently came across an old woman in Bac Son District, the northern province of Lang Son.

The woman was alone in a little house, and seemed to be absorbed in thinking and looking at passers-by, so he was intrigued and approached her, he said.

"She asked me where I came from. I said nguoi Phap (Frenchman) and it was like a magic word. She insisted on inviting me to have tea and told me her story."

She had fallen in love with a Frenchman when she was young, Croquevielle said. Her lover died during the war, so she left Hanoi but has never stopped loving him.

"She told me that she surely will die this year, and that she was happy to meet another French person before that. She said "˜somebody sent you here before I die.'"

"It was a moment full of emotions," he said, adding that he spent that day with her family. 

Why Vietnam?  

Réhahn Croquevielle, a French photographer, has taken thousands of pictures during his two-year sojourn in Vietnam

Asked why he has chosen to stay here, Croquevielle said, without elaborating, "Vietnam was an obvious choice." Croquevielle said.

He said his connection to the country was established many years ago when he was a volunteer for Enfants du Vietnam, a French organization that works to support needy children in Vietnam.

He then became a sponsor for two fatherless girls in Hoi An, sending them money every month. In 2007, he came to meet them. They were aged seven and 13 then. 

He also visited Ha Long Bay, Hanoi and Hue for three weeks.

"I spent time with people, smiling, talking and taking photos. I love one thing especially: people are smiling all the time," Croquevielle said, recalling his first visit to Vietnam.

Four years later, he moved to Hoi An, leaving behind his printing company, not only because he wanted to have change in his life, but he also wanted to live near the girls he had become very close to. 

Croquevielle said he is now working with a designer to publish a book of photos, mostly portraits, in both Vietnam and France.

He plans yet another trip to the central highlands province of Kon Tum and nearby areas this November.

Vietnam is home to 54 ethnic minorities, but he has met only ten of them so far, so it will a few years before he thinks about moving to another place, he said.

"My heart is for Vietnam. I feel like I am home now."

(Visit http://www.rehahnphotographer.com/ for more photos of Vietnamese portraits taken by Réhahn Croquevielle)

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