Friday, 18 September 2020

Norfolk seals - in pictures

Think of Norfolk and you might think of Sunny Hunny, Cromer crab, or windmills on the Broads. Personally, my mind jumps immediately to seals (although a delicious dressed crab comes a close second).

Thousands of grey and common seals call the Norfolk coast their home, and they make excellent subjects for some low effort wildlife photography. They can't fly away, they're too lazy to be fussed by your presence and they tend to strike a variety of poses.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

When they're not fishing for cod they're either sunbathing or settling territorial disputes, but whatever they're doing, they're usually pretty happy to be photographed from a distance.

If you stay low and move slowly you'll probably be able to get within six or seven meters before any seal will relieve themselves of your company. So you don't need a massive telephoto lens. All of these photos are shot on my 70-200mm.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

There are two key locations to see Norfolk's seals:

Blakeney Point

There's plenty of information online that suggests you can only see the seal colony at Blakeney Point if you go on a boat trip, but I beg to differ. If you park up at Cley Beach you can walk the few miles west along the shingle beach. 

Just keep walking. And just when you're about to give up - after the third or forth time you mistake a distant piece of driftwood for a seal - you'll reach them.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

Horsey Gap

The colonies at Horsey Gap are much easier to access on foot. The seals here are far more considerate to their human admirers and tend to hang out within ten minutes walk of the car park. 

I came in July when the whole area is free to roam, but the beach is closed for birthing season in the winter and you're asked to stick to the viewing platforms.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

Happy sealing.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Vietnam Part 2: Here today, Saigon tomorrow

Continued from Part 1: Mopeds and pig heads.

Call it Western bias but when I first came across the Vietnam War being referred to as the American War it took me a moment to recalibrate. But, I know, obviously they wouldn't call it the Vietnam War in Vietnam. It was a bit like when I first discovered they don't call it the English Channel in France. (I mean, how dare they! It's the English Channel for English fish!)

Here though, I'll just call it 'the war'. And the memories of it became ever more tangible as we continued south from Phong Nha through Quang Tri province. Today, this area is mostly typified by lazy water buffalo bathing in muddy rivers, but scratch the surface - even just a little - and you may wish you hadn't.

The US dropped more explosives during the war than were used by all sides in World War II. Quang Tri province bore the brunt of it and a huge proportion - some estimates say up to 30% - didn't detonate.

As a consequence, since the war 'ended' - in inverted commas for good reason - over 100,000 Vietnamese people have been killed or maimed by explosives that didn't get the memo. Efforts to clear the country of unexploded ordinance is still very much a work in progress: a mission around 300 years away from completion, at the current rate. Ah, the legacy of war.

To avoid US airstrikes entire communities took their lives underground in hastily built tunnel complexes, with hollowed out maternity wards, classrooms and everything else a village needs to function. We crouched our way through one of these subterranean ghost towns, blown away by the sheer desire of the Vietnamese people not to be murdered by imperialist invaders.

Hue © Ryan Chapman
Leaving Quang Tri behind we crossed the bridge from what was North Vietnam to what was South Vietnam, stopped for a night in Hue, before hopping back on the Reunification Express for the coast-hugging train to Hoi An. The first part of the trip had been pretty hectic, but in Hoi An our hotel had a pool and we had the best part of a week with very little planned. A cooking class here, a cocktail there. A quick dip in the pool there, a cocktail here.

It is said that Vietnamese people can be straight-talking and abrupt. Not in a shock-jock, rabble-rousing, Nigel Farage way, but in a sweet, endearing way. I experienced this first hand when I went to do what every male tourist does in Hoi An: have a suit tailored.

Hoi An © Ryan Chapman
On the first measuring appointment a friendly, well-presented lady took me to one side and unravelled her tape. I clocked the cheeky glint in her eye. "Ah, I see you have no arse" she said, looking me up and down, before wrapping her tape around my waist and commenting on my "little flabby side bits". If it's a sales technique, it worked. And the suit fits like a glove. Even around my little flabby side bits.

This encounter with the seamstress reminded me that I'd promised myself I'd do some exercise while away. Which was hilarious to me. I'd even gone as far as to pack some running shorts. It's honestly as if pre-holiday me and on-holiday me inhabit entirely different universes. I pondered the absurdity of running in the tropical heat, before ordering another drink.

Hoi An © Ryan Chapman
Hoi An seemed a lot more on the beaten path than we'd expected. Mostly on account of the hoards of cruise shippers coming into town to sit in Western style bars with other cruise shippers. In contrast, the path to our next location - another several hours down the train line - was so un-beaten there literally wasn't one. A short traipse across a sandy beach being the only way to access the only accommodation in the village.

Nhon Hai is real Vietnam. Unfortunately, in real Vietnam there aren't hotels employing people to clean the beach. So, in reality - although the people are super friendly and the papaya salads are out of this world - real Vietnam is somewhat tainted by rubbish washed up by the South China Sea. To counterbalance this though, the papaya salads really were that good. So good that every time I got a bit depressed about ocean plastic (because, you see, I'm a massive snowflake who cares about things like that), I just ordered another papaya salad and let the spicy, peanutty goodness wash my woes away.

Nhon Hai © Ryan Chapman
Nhon Hai © Ryan Chapman
After a couple of days tip-toeing around a fucking exhibition of plastic packaging it was back on the Reunification Express for the final sixteen hours to Ho Chi Minh City. Or, as I - and most locals, apparently - prefer to call it: Saigon. (I mean no disrespect to Uncle Ho, but naming cities after revolutionaries is just a bit too Commie. Even for me. Besides, the name Saigon evokes exotic images of rickshaws and fiery sunsets. All the name Ho Chi Minh City evokes are images of some old geezer with a beard.)

Saigon is a surprisingly contemporary and cosmopolitan city. Surprising to me, at least, because I was expecting it to be like Hanoi on steroids. But, although they have an identical soundtrack of horns and mopeds, they're very different.  For a start, I've never seen so many roof top bars in one place. And I can assure you, I'm not complaining. 

Saigon © Ryan Chapman
We had four days in Saigon, which were mostly taken up by eating. However, we also found the time to spend an afternoon at the War Remnants Museum (a must do); explore the city's club scene (thus significantly increasing the average age); and even partake in a spot of karaoke, Vietnam's national sport (Yes, there are videos. No, you can't see them).

No wonder Saigon is home to so many expats, with its plethora of hipster hang-outs and its incredible and diverse food scene. It's a city I would certainly spend a lot more time in, if only RyanAir would find a way to make it a couple of hours away from Stansted.

And so, with a global pandemic just getting into the swing of things it was almost time to come home. But not before five more days in full-on holiday mode on the island of Pho Quoc: Vietnam's answer to Ko Samui. Pho Quoc is exploding in popularity, for good reason. And, judging by the sheer number of construction sites, is trying its damnedest to keep up.

Pho Quoc © Ryan Chapman
By the end of the trip coronavirus anxiety had hit fever pitch. We were sat in the back of a taxi and, I swear, I didn't even cough. I merely cleared my throat. But the driver - eye-balling me in the rear view mirror - simultaneously opened all four windows, gave his steering wheel a rub with a wet-wipe, and insisted on driving us to a pharmacy to buy some face masks. I managed to convince him we were leaving Vietnam later that day, but I don't think he believed me.

And then, on our internal flight back to Hanoi, a woman took her seat next to me on the plane wearing a full-body hazmat suit. She had the lot: gloves, goggles, mask. PPE quite literally from head to toe. She took a small bottle of disinfectant from her handbag and sprayed herself like it was perfume. Then she sprayed her tray table, and then proceeded to spray me. It was time to come home.


Hoi An tips: climb aboard Uncle Dai's boat bar for pre-dinner drinks, dinner and/or post-dinner drinks with friendly cats, dogs and humans (it's not entirely clear who owns who). The Hoianian for something a little less rustic. Kimmy for tailoring. 

Saigon tips: pay-as-you-go karaoke at iCOOL. Incredible tapas at Octo. Saigon Cocktails or The Gin House for afters.

Pho Quoc tips: we stayed in Ong Lang which seemed the best of all worlds. Eat and be merry at the Bittersweet Bistro. Mango Bay for something special.

Friday, 12 June 2020

[Film] Evicted: The Story of Favela do Metro

Ten years ago Brazilian authorities began evicting favela residents from their homes in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. At best, they prioritised the whims of a one-off sporting mega-event over the lives of poor people. At worst, it was social cleansing.

Entire communities were flattened, often with very little warning, and sometimes even without a clear plan. In one case a row of favela dwellings were torn down so a hedge could be planted alongside a main road, to shield the rest of the favela from the view of passing cars. Just in case visitors mentioned poverty in their postcards home.

One favela community - a little too close to the party for comfort - was particularly hard hit by this wave of destruction. Almost 700 families living a stone's throw from Rio's iconic Maracanã Stadium felt the full impact of Brazil's shameful forced evictions.

I shot this footage in 2014 in a very noisy (!) corner of Rio de Janeiro, as part of a series of vlogs about the World Cup. Six years after the World Cup kicked off, this is the full story of Favela do Metro:

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Vietnam Part 1: Mopeds and pig heads

"Hanoi's like fucking Beirut" warned the classic Brit Abroad we met towards the end of our trip, whose worldly references seemed to be limited to a Middle Eastern civil war that ended 30 years ago. That's assuming he was comparing Hanoi to the once war-torn streets of the Lebanese capital and not emphasising an abundance of hummus. "Oh, we quite liked it actually" we admitted, before conceding that it's exhaustingly chaotic. And, come to think of it, a bit of baba ghanoush wouldn't go amiss.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi owes its chaos to the sheer volume of motorbikes, mopeds and scooters. And the alarming enthusiasm with which they're ridden. On the morning of Day 1, simply crossing the road is a dauntingly treacherous prospect. By the afternoon of Day 2 you've nailed the technique: stick to a straight line, maintain a consistent pace, and hope for the best. By Day 3 you're playing Spot the New Arrivals as panic-stricken Western faces stare wide-eyed at the constant stream of traffic wondering how on earth they're going to make it to dinner on time. Or indeed, alive.

Even down the narrowest of side streets, lined with market stalls and their bouquets of fresh herbs, mountains of fruit and all the parts of a pig you can think of. Even here, Hanoians on mopeds will come speeding down the alleyway behind you, assuming you'll step aside just in time. The two-wheeler is king and you just have to be okay with that.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

There are, of course, plenty of places to escape the relentless buzz of the city. Such as incense-infused temples with their alters bearing offerings to Buddist deities from bottled water to multi-packs of custard cupcakes; restful gardens alive with birdsong; and cafes where you can sample the Hanoian specialty of egg coffee. Now, cracking an egg into your coffee may not sound appealing, and the idea was born out of desperation during a wartime milk shortage, but it's nicer than it sounds. I promise.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi's centre-piece is Hoan Kiem: a tranquil lake in a sea of mayhem. People of all ages gather on its shores to practice Thi Chi or play friendly games of badminton that quickly turn competitive. Another local past-time, enjoyed mostly by pairs of middle-aged men, is đá cầu (also known as jianzi). Essentially it's football with a shuttlecock. I watched for a while, willing a miss-kick to fall my way but they were all too good to lose control (which is probably for the best, to be honest).

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

It had been over a decade since I'd done any significant traveling in this corner of the world, so I was more than ready for the unique assault of the senses that only South East Asia can provide. And Hanoi, with its myriad of frantic sights and pungent smells, satisfied the craving. But after a long weekend in the capital it was time to hit the tracks and explore more of Vietnam.

The Reunification Express railway links Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City a thousand miles to the south. The railway was mostly destroyed during the American War but rebuilt following Vietnam's reunification in 1975. Hence the name. The full journey takes around thirty-four hours, but broken up into five or six legs is perfectly manageable. Especially if you book sleeper cabins for the overnight sections. And stock up on the requisite snacks, obviously.

Our first leg from Hanoi to Ninh Binh was the shortest of all with barely enough time for a quick nap and a packet of crisps. The city of Ninh Binh is nothing special, but the surrounding countryside is spectacularly dotted with dramatic karst rock formations towering over lush rice fields and winding waterways. A stunning landscape to explore by boat, bike and boot.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

It's here in the rural backwaters that we first experienced the general friendliness of the Vietnamese people. That's not to say they were particularly rude in Hanoi, but it's hard to be polite when you're constantly chasing people down on motorbikes. Children in the countryside around Ninh Binh would hurry out of their houses to shout 'hello' as we passed. And the braver kids with slightly more English would ask for our names, before giggling at the response and hiding behind a tree.

In fact, there seemed to be kids everywhere. Even our homestay was run by children. When we couldn't get the shower to work the only person around to ask was a girl of about thirteen. And then her younger sister served us fresh mango for breakfast that she'd grown in the garden. It was then I realised that this abundance of youth was no doubt linked to the coronavirus-related school closures. All the kids in the village were probably bored out of their minds and just saying hello to Westerners for something to do. But at least they did it with a smile.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

A further eight or so hours south on the Reunification Express - the perfect amount of time for a good sleep, we had naively calculated - is Phong Nha National Park. The area is best known for caves (including the biggest in the world, no less) but as impressive as they are, let's be honest, when you've seen one cave that's kind of enough. Luckily, there's plenty more to do that doesn't involve trying to recall your Year 8 geography class that covered stalagmites and stalactites during which you were distracted by scrawling flirtatious graffiti in the exercise books of mostly disinterested girls sat next to you.

Phong Nha © Ryan Chapman

Locals have got creative with their offerings to tourists in these parts. Whether you want to eat Chicken Bombs in a bomb-themed bar beside a crater formed during an American airstrike, have a flock of ducks peck seeds from in-between your toes, or ride a massive water buffalo named Donald Trump: Phong Nha has you covered.

And from there, we headed to the ancient capital of Hue. But for that you'll have to wait for Part 2...


Hanoi tips: drink egg coffee at Dinh Cafe before and/or after a walk around the lake. Eat bánh mì at Bánh Mì 25 (bánh mì is essentially a savoury filled baguette, but Vietnamese bread is lighter with a  satisfyingly crackly crust). Drink excellent cocktails at The Alchemist.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Ninh Binh tips: stay at Hang Mua Nature Homestay (run by a very welcoming family with two rooms overlooking a tropical fruit garden). Do a boat trip from Trang An and explore the Tam Coc area by bike (we hired bikes from Tam Coc Happy Home). Download the Grab app for taxis to cover the longer distances.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

Phong Nha tips: cycle out to The Pub with Cold Beer and reward your efforts with their flagship product (beware of the copycat establishment The Knockoff Pub With Cold Beer just around the corner. According to reviews their beer isn't even cold). On the way back swing by the aforementioned Bomb Crater Bar for further refreshment.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Making Ice Cream [music video]

Towards the end of last summer I was part of a small camera crew to squeeze into an even smaller wooden cabin for a shoot on a slice of Hertfordshire farmland. We were there to make the music video for Ice Cream, a single from Irish singer-songwriter Tod Doyle (arguably the best thing to come out of Ireland since Father Ted).

Tod on set.
Me on set.
We shot the video over two days, fuelled by copious amounts of pastries and flapjacks like all good shoots are. However, considering the name of the song there was a disappointing lack of ice cream due to the freezer's close proximity to the cabin's log burner. Melted Cornetto anyone?

Camera porn.
Tod and I had first met in Budapest more moons ago than either of us could reliably remember and we had similarly hazy memories of loose backpacker shenanigans and raucous guitar-led singalongs. He had emerged from the chaos with his Irish folk songs which became anthems of a good few Hungarian summers.

Tod back in the day (Budapest, 2012)

I've since edited the video and it's now live for all to see:

Tod has more new music coming soon so look out for it on your favourite music streaming service (and by that I mean Spotify, obviously). I've been privy to a couple of tracks in the pipeline and I can assure you they're worth the wait.