Sodium Chloride

Everyone talks about bucket lists these days, like you’re going to die tomorrow. And it’s not surprising, almost everyone is invariably headed to the same places to check off these banal destinations off of their lists. It’s such a cliche. 

I don’t have one. I’m more interested in seeking out unique places that are not infested and overrun by tourists where I have to elbow people out of my way just to take in the sights. Not my cup of “chai”.

I learnt about the Hon Khoi Salt Fields quite by accident when I was Googling places to visit in Nha Trang, Vietnam. It was not even on my radar of places to visit on this trip to Vietnam. Situated some 50kms North of Nha Trang near Doc Let Beach in Ninh Hoa province, lie fields where salt is harvested from sea water. It’s in a remote corner just off Doc Let and the best way to get there is by the local bus from Nha Trang.

Office hours at Hon Khoi are from 4am-9am daily. “Oh no, not another early morning!” was my first reaction. I’ve been up at 5am almost everyday since I’ve been in Vietnam either catching the sunrise, the morning market or something or the other and the prospect of waking up again in the wee hours of the morning to see this was not what I was looking forward to. And all my FB friends think I’m here on an R&R vacation!

I’m not a morning person but when the situation warrants it, I’m game for anything. Vietnam’s coastline mostly faces an Easterly direction, hence there are more sunrises to be had than sunsets, which are my preferred time for photography. I figure 4am is too early to see anything since it will still be too dark so I make it to the fields at 5:30am to case the joint and find a suitable vantage point to observe the salt people at work.

This is my understanding of how it all works.  Harvesting is usually between the months of January and July when the weather during the day is hot. These shallow fields are filled with sea water and left to dry for approximately 10-15 days. When a field is ripe for the picking, the team gets to work. The men use rakes to create mounds of crystalized salt in the fields while the women collect it in baskets and wheelbarrows and deposit their collections just outside the field in a larger heap for processing at a later time. I picked up a fist full and it felt like pure white gold in my hands. While it’s a simple low tech method of extracting salt from sea water it’s nonetheless an incredibly effective technique for harvesting a mineral that we often take for granted in our daily lives. It is estimated that these salt fields alone produce approximately 750,000 tons of salt a year.

It is surely hard work and I now understand why they’re up so early and finish before it gets too hot after 9am in the morning. As the sun starts to rise, their silhouettes create wonderful imagery and mirror-like reflections in the water, their constant chatter and the hive of activity in and around the field is immensely interesting to watch.

As luck would have it, a small group of tourists came by as well and true to form, trampled all over the place and got into the fields with the workers snapping away to glory. My question to them is, what’s up with this kind of behaviour? You’re not at some zoo photographing animals in captivity.

Oblivious of the fact that they were not only disrupting the work going on at the field but asking these poor workers to stop and pose a certain way so that they could get the shots they were after. It’s just the silliest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

What’s the point of traveling thousands of miles to photograph people at work when you’re ultimately going to decide and dictate how they should look and pose for your shots? There was nothing candid in the way this group went about their business and a total waste of time in my opinion. This is precisely why I dislike tourists and tour groups.

I shot this (below) from behind the group as I was leaving. Yeah, its a stunning shot with sunrise and all the essential elements that make for a great environmental photo but it’s posed for and what their guide kept yelling at this poor lady to do over and over.


Bloody tourists….

Responsible tourism should be about observation not disruption or interference.  I prefer authenticity and endeavour to keeping it real. It’s all about getting my shots as naturally and candidly as possible even if it means coming away with average photos. I’m glad I got the shots I was hoping for before these folks came on the scene and quite frankly ruined it all.

Hon Khoi is what makes a real bucket list item, for me anyway, not the glass towers of Saigon, the highlands of Dalat or the sandy beaches of Nha Trang. I was not sure I’d even make it this far up the coastline of Vietnam. But once I got here, I knew this was what I came to Vietnam for.

I left the salt fields with a deeper appreciation of what it takes to make salt. The next time you pick up the salt shaker, spare a thought to the origins of its contents. It may well have come from Hon Khoi.

The Roving Photographer
March 24, 2016


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