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Frank Miller in Vietnam – Report 1

Photographer Frank Miller is back in Dublin having travelled to the extreme north of Vietnam to report in pictures on the lives of the Hmong, one of Vietnam’s 53 minority ethnic groups.

Dong Van, in the extreme north of Vietnam is the kind of place that’s hard to find on a map and when you’re there it’s not the kind of location where you’ll pick up a decent wifi signal. Hence this report is being filed from Dublin where I’m busy doing final edits, mainly for the Audio Slideshow that will appear this Saturday on Irishtimes.com. The slideshow will complement the pictures, with a few words, that are due to run in this Saturday’s Irish Times magazine.

Last month I flew to Hanoi via Paris, a pretty long journey in its own right, and the kind of trip that leaves you dizzy with jetlag and unable to function properly for 24 hours. Having been there before I built in a day’s recovery before getting into a jeep to face the two day drive to Dong Van. My original intention had been to travel to Dien Bien province in the Northwest but liaison with the Irish Embassy in Hanoi gave me the feedback that due to political sensitivities that would not be possible. So Ha Giang province was my new destination and in some ways it was a fortunate change as for a photographer the landscape in Ha Giang provided a stunning background for my work. I was extremely fortunate that To Ngoc Anh, Irish Aid Poverty and Inclusion Advisor at the embassy, was able to accompany me on the trip.

Anyone who has travelled in the developing world knows that in many ways you are at the mercy of your “fixer”. As a photographer there are times that you rely completely on someone else to get you into the right place to take the picture. The most obvious examples are a pilot who will put up with you speaking into their ear via headphones and place the helicopter exactly where you need it and at the right speed and tracking to get your picture. In this case Ngoc Anh was an invaluable help in helping me through the potential minefield of red tape and getting access to the region so that I could work.

Vietnam is a one-party Socialist Republic. The political system has some real benefits in that it has allowed the country pursue economic development in a determined and single-minded way without having to worry about any opposition parties snapping at it’s ankles. Media access to any area considered sensitive means going through certain protocols however. My access was granted as a photographer who had received  SCMF funding to illustrate development issues around the ethnic minorities in the extreme north. Our local liaison was via the Women’s Union, a remarkable organisation, of which more in my next blog.

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in blogs under the Simon Cumbers Media Fund are those of the journalist and / or their interviewees. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Irish Government.