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I started my day hopping onto the 6:30 train to Lang Co Lagoon. As I sat in the station waiting, I thought about the landscapes I saw crossing the Hai Van pass on my many motorbike trips to Hue. Beautiful blue waters crashing onto lush green rocky mountains. Bitten by the train bug, I couldn’t stop thinking about the winding train tracks and that rush I get from leaning out of the train door and feeling the wind pushing me back. After a one hour delay that I killed over a cup of cà phê đen đá, I was finally on board!  Soon enough I began to realize that there wouldn’t be any vibrant colorful scapes as I had expected. It started drizzling and the whole train sank into a cloud of thick fog. I felt dazed and the whole visual was a little surreal. I placed myself in the last carriage of the train, the cafeteria, as it would be the best place to shoot the train winding over the mountain and more strictly because it was the only carriage where I was allowed to open the windows. I ordered my drink and sat there gazing and waiting for the open scenery, hoping the clouds would break and reveal a bit of sunshine. But it didn’t. Instead, I found myself synching to this melancholic atmosphere and the whole environment inside the train. I felt it was very warm and cozy to be on the inside rather than outside on a motorbike. I thought to myself, this is a great chance to get some different kind of feeling in the photos, maybe more interesting than those colorful landscapes. 

I set my camera to high contrast monochrome and started shooting inside the train, a group of train workers having breakfast together in a very natural moment. Even though I shoot in RAW and the photos are going to be processed in color on my computer anyways, it was essential for me to shoot in black and white as my thought process changes completely from shooting in color. My eyes are searching for something different, for example, a white blown misty window behind my subject, rather than patches of orange color leaking into the carriage.  And therefore, I had to view my photos in monochrome just as I’m imagining them in my head.

A little less than an hour passed before we reached the Hai Van Pass. After securing the strap around my wrist, I reached my arm outside the window to get a better angle of the train body in my frame. I made sure that my aperture is closed down all the way to get strong sharp images with a large depth of field covering the whole scene. I was really excited when I saw the images. The mountain and beach covered in fog, very moody and dreamy looking, I absolutely loved it and I kept shooting for a good solid hour. After getting the shots I wanted, I shifted my attention to inside the train, looking for a strong relationship shot for my story, something that can convey the feeling of this train voyage. I took some photos of the passengers on the train who didn’t seem to be annoyed by my snaps, they were rather curious after we chatted very briefly in my broken Vietnamese.

Not before long we arrived at Lang Co station. I was planning to go around exploring the lagoon but instead, due to the weather conditions, I decided to head back to Da Nang. After chatting a bit with the train workers inquiring about the next train heading back, I was disappointed to find the next train departs at 3:00 pm. But suddenly, luck smiled down upon me. One of the men I was talking to – Mr. Phuc –  who was a train conductor, offered me to hitch a ride with him on a cargo train heading back in a couple of hours. I was thrilled! I get to ride in the tail locomotive with them too! So I waited around what seemed to be the quietest train station in the world until it was time to move. I got on and got to know Mr Phuc a lot better. He is a very kind person with a generous nature and a great smile. After the first hour the extra attention ended, he and his assistant went back to their business as well as taking naps in turns. That’s when I started to get the good shots, after they got a bit more used to the presence of the camera and didn’t pay much attention to it. The rest of the voyage went very well till we arrived at the station, said our goodbyes and exchanged contacts. Even though I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t lean out of open doors like I did on my train adventures in India and Myanmar, I was very happy to have had a completely new train experience, travelled in a locomotive, on a cargo train, taken some good photos and made some friends too!

Shooting the Hai Van Pass

Written by Vietnam in Focus Photographer guide Mansour

Mostafa Mansour

Mostafa Mansour

Mansour is a documentary style and travel photographer from Cairo who has been living in Southeast Asia for over two years. His work is mainly focused on documenting the daily life of people from different ethnicities, and photographing aspects of culture and street life with a journalistic approach.  Most recently his photography has featured in Vice magazine.

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