Floods in Vietnam
December 2008

by Justin Mott

Preface: I don't mean to make light of this disaster and my heart and condolences go out to the families and friends of the 51 people that died throughout Vietnam in early November when one of the worst floods to hit the country in decades struck. According to Bloomberg News Service: "The floods, which followed the country's heaviest rains in at least 24 years, started Oct. 30 and damaged more than 123,000 houses, ruined 256,000 hectares (632,600 acres) of rice and other crops, and destroyed 27,200 hectares of fish farms, as well as many bridges and roads." In this Dispatch, I want to focus on a positive personal observation of the disaster.

© Justin Mott/Bloomberg News
Even though their district of Hanoi, Vietnam, was flooded, people wanted to pose or wave at me, Nov. 4, 2008.
Friday, Oct. 30, I spent the day inside as the pounding rain kindly pointed out the weaknesses in my poorly constructed home in Hanoi. Nothing major, just tiny leaks here and there. Rain in SE Asia has its own personality. It can forget to drizzle and drop; instead it often attacks quickly like someone dumping a bucket of water on you. One can become drenched in a matter of seconds. This day was no different than the others with heavy rains except the rain just wouldn't quit. A friend of mine from a disaster relief NGO here gave me a call to warn me that things could get bad and that they were on alert. I've heard this before with storms off the coast threatening to pound the city only to later fizzle out or head in a different direction so I wasn't too concerned. I was headed out of town that night to Saigon for a friend's wedding and at that point nothing convinced me to stay in Hanoi.

© Justin Mott/Bloomberg News
Vu Giam An, 3, rests on a homemade Syrofoam raft outside his house in the heavily flooded Hoang Mai District of Hanoi, Vietnam, Nov. 4, 2008.
My airport taxi arrived early Friday evening and I had to cover all my bags with their rain covers just for the short walk from my garage door to the taxi. I arrived in Saigon and spent the weekend with my friend, shooting his wedding (weddings can last a few days here). During the hectic days I kept seeing snippets on the local news about the floods up north. The reports were getting worse and worse and the SMSs were flowing in from my friends in Hanoi about the conditions. On Monday I received an e-mail from Bloomberg News Service for an assignment to cover the flood aftermath. Although I live in Hanoi, most of my assignment work is either in Saigon or abroad, and of course the first time major news hits my home, I'm not there.

I boarded a plane on Monday night back to Hanoi not knowing what to expect. My taxi driver had to take an alternate route back to my house as worries started to sink in that my weak house might have allowed the rain to damage my belongings. I arrived home to no major problems and geared up to go find the flooded areas the next day.

© Justin Mott/Bloomberg News
A man floats with his motorbike in the Hoang Mai District of Hanoi, Vietnam, during the country's flood, Nov. 4, 2008.
When I woke up I started making calls and sending out messages to try and find the areas of Hanoi that were still flooded. My Vietnamese teacher Ha sent me a message saying her neighborhood was still really bad and that she could only reach her home by boat. I hired Ha to translate for me for the afternoon and I hopped a motor taxi over to meet her in the Hoang Mai District.

It started raining on my way over there and when I arrived I was blown away at the sight. I've never seen heavy floods before, never mind in a big city. The streets were canals and people were being shuttled back and forth using all kinds of homemade floating vessels or just taking the plunge and walking in. The water on the streets was waist-deep fairly consistently and neck-deep at certain points. I had to wait for Ha to arrive by boat before heading out so I rolled up my pants and started shooting away. People were coming and going as if the concrete road was made of sand and they were just heading into the ocean for a swim. It was so natural to everyone. I was being bombarded by offers to take a boat for ridiculously inflated prices while I tried to focus and take in what was going on. The mood wasn't what I expected. Although Vietnam is a really friendly place to photograph and the people for the most part are quite playful, I expected to be met with some resistance. There was none; in fact, quite the opposite. I had a hard time taking a natural photograph for the first hour or so as people wanted to pose or wave at me.

© Justin Mott/Bloomberg News
During Vietnam's flood, water on the streets was waist-deep fairly consistently and neck-deep at certain points. Here, a man commutes on the flooded streets riding a homemade boat made of small pieces of wood for paddles, Nov. 4, 2008.
Ha arrived and we both sort of laughed at the whole thing because we were both drenched already and knew we had a whole afternoon ahead of us. People everywhere were going about their daily lives and Ha and I jumped in the boat and went out to explore. Overall the mood was so friendly. People were giggling as I photographed them or even trying to call me over to shoot them. The resiliency was what impressed me the most. People weren't sitting home feeling bad for themselves; they were just going about their daily lives and commute in a different way. Motorbikes propped up on wooden planks, Styrofoam floats being paddled by men with wooden oars rigged to their hands with string, or people just throwing on raincoats and wading through the waist-deep canal for a few blocks. Local volunteers were transporting in food and vendors found the opportunity to make a buck selling overpriced candles, snacks and raincoats. Some people were just sort of hanging out in the waist-deep water chatting with their neighbors like any other day.

© Justin Mott/Bloomberg News
The flooded streets of Hanoi's Hoang Mai District became canals and residents shuttled back and forth on the flood waters using all kinds of homemade floating vessels, Nov. 4, 2008.
I've heard and read about the resiliency of the Vietnamese through the course of history and even seen small doses in my years of living here on and off. They fought off the Chinese, French, and the Americans—a pretty impressive record. All day people were smiling and laughing as we spent the afternoon interviewing people and photographing the district. In addition to the light mood I was so impressed with how creative the people were at adapting to this mess. The homemade boats, the vendors changing their stock to suit people's needs and make an extra buck; everyone just adapted and went about their lives.

I filed that afternoon and just made deadline because I didn't want to leave the area – I was finding pictures everywhere. I can still remember struggling to weed through all the images of people waving at me to find more natural moments. Of course, not everybody was light about the situation and in addition to the deaths some people were heavily struck financially by the damage but overall the mood and resiliency of the people here truly left an impression on me.

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© Justin Mott

Justin Mott is currently living in Hanoi working as a freelance photojournalist and videojournalist, taking on assignments and working on his personal stories and multimedia projects. Justin is represented by WpN and his clients include The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Discovery Channel, The Independent (UK), L'Express, Business Week, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Global Exchange and various other publications and NGOs. He is also co-founder of the multimedia storytelling Web site, http://OnTheRoadMedia.com.

Revisit Justin Mott's previous dispatch: http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0807/palm-oil-price-rise.html.

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