The Camera Man of Hanoi

December 2018

It was at the Temple of Literature where tragedy struck.

I was enjoying a day of sightseeing at one of Hanoi’s most picturesque sights. Everywhere you looked, there was a good photo: serene ponds dotted with lotus flowers, lush, ancient trees swaying in the breeze, crumbling majestic temple gates decorated with murals and reliefs. I had just clicked the shutter, capturing a scene of one of the ponds with colorful Buddhist and Vietnamese flags fluttering overhead, and while moving my thumb to wind the film on my beloved Canonet QL17, discovered there was no more film to wind.

That was fast, I thought. Time for another roll.

I began to wind the film, but what was usually a very smooth and easy procedure was surprisingly difficult. I kept winding, but I could feel some resistance. . . and then the winding knob came off in my hand. Shocked, I screwed it back on, but the damage was done. It wasn’t engaging the film winder, and now the film was stuck in my camera.  

A quick Google search yielded several camera shops in the shopping district south of Hoan Kiem Lake, also called “Sword Lake”. According to Vietnamese mythology, Emperor Ly Thai To was given a magical sword from Heaven to drive away the Chinese. After the war, a golden turtle took the sword and disappeared into the depths of this lake. It’s a pretty place, and quite scenic in the evening, when the bridges and small pagoda in the center are lit with colored lights that sparkle in the water.

This particular evening though, the lake area was mayhem. It was the final game of the AFF Cup, a huge football event in Southeast Asia, and Vietnam was playing Malaysia. It was still a few hours to go until the game, but people were already out, dressed in red, with flags and horns in hand. A big screen had been erected, and excitement for the big event was building.

I’m not a sports fan, so normally I would stay away on such a night, but this was an emergency. I gathered my courage and battled the crowds to the first shop on my list.

“Camera repair?” I asked. The woman behind the counter nodded. I pulled out my camera. “Film camera?” She shook her head. I thanked her and continued.

The next shop was closed. The one after that didn’t do repairs, but he pointed to his friend across the street who beckoned me in.

“Film camera?” I asked warily.

He looked surprised. I’m sure it had been a while since anyone had requested a repair on a film camera.

“No, I don’t do film cameras, but you should go here,” he said, and pulled up the Facebook page for yet another camera shop. Hung Dingo, Camera Shop and Repair. The page banner had the slogan “Yeah, we can fix that!” with a picture of the exact model of my camera. It seemed like fate.

“It’s a bit far. Tonight they will close. Big game,” he smiled apologetically. “Go tomorrow.”

It seemed fate would have to wait one more day. Two more days, in fact, as I was leaving for an overnight tour the next morning.  But once I was back in Hanoi on Monday evening, I was determined.

I examined the location in Googlemaps. The guy at the shop was right, it was far, farther south than I’d traveled in Hanoi. It was time for a Grab.

Grab is Southeast Asia’s version of Uber, but it’s so much cheaper. I love Grab. The app is easy to use, you can see the cost before the ride, and know you aren’t being ripped off and are being driven by a reputable driver in their system. Taxis in Southeast Asia can be notoriously dodgy for foreigners, so Grab easily solves this potential hazard.

But because this is Asia, with Grab you can get not only a car, but a motorbike to hop on the back of. This particular evening was a Monday night at 17:30. Rush hour. Traffic in the Old Quarter was already piled up. Time for a bike.

I’ve met a lot of tourists in Vietnam who think I am absolutely insane for doing Grab bike. On the flip side, I’ve also met a lot of tourists in Vietnam who are more insane than myself and will rent or buy motorbikes and drive them themselves. While I would definitely never do the latter as I have no idea how the traffic works in Hanoi (there are no rules, you just go!) the former is possibly the best way to see the city and really feel it’s pulse. If you don’t believe me, watch Parts Unknown S8 E1. Bourdain backs me up on this one.

Because Vietnam has to import all of it’s cars, they are exorbitantly expensive, so motorbike has become the preferred way to get around. On the back of one, moving through the flow of traffic, you see every member of Vietnamese society traveling alongside you. Business men and women in suits and skirts on their way home, friends chatting at traffic lights before an evening out, families of four riding together on one bike with the kids squished between the parents going to dinner. On the back of a bike,  you can actually feel the life around you, not separated through the glass of a car or bus.

My Grab driver drove out of the Old Quarter and along a wider road peppered with tall office buildings, before turning down a side street congested with motorbikes. I looked around at the drivers and pedestrians on the street. We had left the tourist areas far behind, and mine was the only foreign face in the crowd. Frustrated with the traffic, he suddenly swerved down an alley between apartments. We twisted and turned through the alley, one so narrow I could have touched the buildings on both sides, passing open windows where the smells of cooking wafted through the air and laundry hung overhead.

We rounded the corner and he abruptly braked. It was a dead end. He turned around and called out into the darkness, asking for directions. A woman’s voice answered from one of the buildings, telling him the way. “Cám ơn!” he replied, and we were off again.

We left the alley behind, onto a sparsely-lit street with older apartment buildings and shops selling sundries and hardware supplies. The driver pulled over and stopped the bike. I didn’t see a camera shop anywhere.

“This is it?” I asked, my voice a pitch higher from the anxiety rising in my chest. This couldn’t be it. This was a dark, local street in a part of town that was unfamiliar to me, with no camera shop in sight. I put one foot on the ground, but I wasn’t getting off the bike just yet. I didn’t want to be left here, alone and disappointed, with no way to get back to my hostel.

The driver couldn’t speak English, but like every young person in Asia he was very adept with his smartphone. Using Google Translate, he informed me that this was, in fact, the address I’d given him. I typed my dilemma into his phone. He asked me for the shop phone number, but I had no wifi, so he made a hotspot for me with his phone. Bless this driver!!! He was definitely getting a 5 star review for this ride.

After a minute on the phone, he pointed at one of the drab apartment buildings. “Floor four,” he told me. Ok. I was still dubious about this, but he had just talked to someone at the shop, so I was willing to take a gamble. I paid him, and walked up four flights of dimly lit concrete steps. On the fourth floor, I peered down a row of glass doors, and noticed a small yellow sign above one of the doorbells. Hung Dingo, Camera Shop and Repair. It really was here. I rang the bell.

To my surprise, a young girl, perhaps about 8 years old, with short black hair, opened the door.

Xin chào,” I said in greeting, my voice faltering a bit both with confusion and my bad Vietnamese pronunciation.

Xin chào,” she shyly replied, almost hiding behind the door. I held up my camera.

“Camera repair?”

She gave a tiny nod, and retreated into the depths of the apartment. A few moments later, a thin Vietnamese man with long, grey-streaked hair and a kind face appeared.

“Yes, I fix cameras,” he said in perfect English. “Please, come in.”

I entered a small, homey apartment building, and removed my shoes in the entryway as is custom in Vietnam. On one side of the main room was a TV, where the girl was already engrossed in cartoons, and some bookshelves with books and knickknacks. On the other side was a desk and computer area, with some shelves on the walls, every inch of which was covered in cameras and equipment, camera bodies and lenses, tiny metallic parts, and random tools jammed into every corner and piling onto the floor in neat arrays. It felt more like a tiny laboratory than a camera shop. It felt like the answer to my prayers.

I explained my problem to Dingo (in Asia surnames come first, so Hung was his surname). He peered at the camera, turning it over carefully in his hands. “Please wait,” he instructed, and disappeared around the bookshelf into another part of the apartment. Within ten minutes, he reappeared, holding the now free roll of film in his hand. He opened the camera and demonstrated that the winding mechanism and shutter were both in working order once more.

“It’s a good camera,” he said meditatively, almost tenderly, as he closed the camera back and handed me the Canonet.

“It is,” I replied, as my heart flooded with warmth and relief. “How much?” I asked, reaching for my wallet.

“Oh no. Free,” he responded, with a small smile. I thanked him profusely. We talked for a few minutes. He asked me where I was from, if I could speak any Vietnamese.

“Not really,” I admitted. “Just a few things. Xin chào, cám ơn.” I suddenly remembered the expression for ‘oh my god’. “Ôi trời ơi!” Dingo threw back his head and laughed, surprised that I new this. “Can we take a picture?” he asked. This lovely man had fixed my camera for free; of course we could take a picture.

He gave his iphone to the little girl. She screwed up her face in concentration and poked at the screen a few times. She wasn’t pleased with something, maybe the lighting in the room. She was already learning from the master.

I should have stayed longer. I regret not asking him so many things. How he spoke such good English, if the girl was his daughter, how he ended up in Hanoi fixing film cameras in his apartment. At that moment, I was anxious to get back to my hostel, and reluctant to impose too long on his home and hospitality. Reflecting upon it now, I see that he wouldn’t have minded, and would have enjoyed a longer conversation just as much as I.

After returning to the hostel that night, I checked my Facebook. Dingo had posted our photo, along with a photo of another foreigner who’d found his shop.

The caption read “New friends”.

Happy Travels,

Mo

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3 thoughts on “The Camera Man of Hanoi

  1. What a great story. We also had a similar experience but unfortunately our camera was beyond repair and they didn’t want to charge us anything after an hour of work. Needless to say we left a generous “tip” for the woman who actually who tried to fix it.
    Fond memories of Vietnam and the traffic. Crossing streets in Hanoi was insane but in Saigon I actually prayed, held hands with my wife, made as much eye contact as possible and walked across. It was like walking through a swarm of bees…..and sooo much fun.
    Safe travels.

  2. Oh I love this story. I can for sure understand your trepidation when you first arrived at the place and couldn’t see any kind of shop. The Grab driver sounds like a hero, as does your camera man. How lucky you were to have found him. Your persistence paid off.
    Alison

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