Neil Featherstone is an Australian-born photographer and author living in Ho Chi Minh City. After spending more than half his life as a banker and financial planner, he has now found himself doing the job he dreamed of as a young boy.
After the first trip to Vietnam in 2009, he immediately fell in love with the country.
He resettled in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012 and danced his way around Vietnam with a camera in hand, cataloging the country’s people and places.
Featherstone has published four hard cover photography books about Vietnam – Hoi An Panorama (2015), Saigon Ca Phe (2016), Hanoi Panorama (2018) and Vibrant Vietnam (2018).
Tuoi Tre News met Featherstone at a café in Ho Chi Minh City in April to talk about his love for the Southeast Asian country he now calls home.
What brought you to Vietnam for the first time?
I first traveled to Vietnam as a tourist in 2009.
I landed in Hanoi and travelled south to Saigon. I enjoyed the trip so much that I knew I wanted to come back.
I made my second trip to Vietnam in 2010 and took the same route, travelling from Hanoi to Saigon, seeing places that I had not seen on my first trip.
After the second trip I decided that I wanted to spend more time in Vietnam. At that time, I had a small business in Australia that was quite easy to run online.
From 2010 to 2012, I started spending more of my time in Vietnam. I ended up spending three months at a time here and three months in Australia.
In 2012 I sold my business in Australia as I decided that I would rather do something different with my life. I also wanted to live in Vietnam, not just visit. The chapter of my life in Vietnam started from there.
From a financial planner in Australia to becoming a photographer in Vietnam – how did you make it?
When I was younger I wanted to be a newspaper photographer or a journalist but I stumbled into my first job in the banking industry and stayed there for many years, eventually opening my own business as a financial planner.
When I came to Vietnam, one of the first things I did was studying the Vietnamese language. I met and became friends with some people in my class who worked for an English language magazine in Saigon.
When I came here to live in 2012 I was given the opportunity to do freelance photography for a magazine. I contributed to the magazine for two years and that was my start in professional photography in Vietnam.
You also write books, how were you inspired?
I have been very lucky since I came here to live.
I was introduced to the team at Artbook Vietnam through the art director at that magazine, Paolo Maling, and we began our first book project together, Hoi An Panorama, which was published in 2015.
If you said to me before I came here to live that I would do photography for a magazine and publish four books on Vietnam, I would have said that you were crazy! I have ended up doing exactly what I wanted to do when I was in my early twenties – photography and writing.
Hoi An Panorama was a follow-up to Saigon Panorama, a book that was completed by another photographer. Hoi An Panorama is a collection of panoramic images of Hoi An, one of Vietnam’s most iconic tourist attractions.
Saigon Ca Phe is a book about Saigon’s bourgeoning coffee culture. We also use coffee, the most popular drink in Saigon and all around Vietnam, as a metaphor for the rapid changes that are taking place throughout Vietnam.
You have spent more than one year shooting and writing for two new books which will be released in April 2018. What impressions came out of your travels?
I made several trips during 2017 to do the photography for the two new books, Hanoi Panorama and Vibrant Vietnam, editing and writing in between.
Hanoi Panorama is a collection of panoramic images of the national capital. I began shooting in Hanoi last summer in 44-degree heat. The life of a photographer is not always comfortable!
Then I travelled to Ha Long Bay and the mountains around Sa Pa before heading south in a succession of trips to cover the main tourist hotspots.
I returned to Hanoi to finish the loop during Tet in 2018. I was happy to end the book on the high note of the Tet celebration, which is beautiful both in Hanoi and Saigon.
|Neil Featherstone. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre News|
Vibrant Vietnam covers the country from north to south visiting the main tourist destinations along the way.
All of my books to date are intended as mementos that visitors to Vietnam can buy and take home with them as a physical reminder of their time in the country.
The biggest takeaway from my travels last year is just how quickly Vietnam is transforming and developing. Places that I visited only a few years ago have changed so much due to new infrastructure that is opening up the country.
I would say to anyone who wants to visit Vietnam that if this is a country on your "bucket list" you should get here sooner rather than later.
How do you feel about the changes taking place in Vietnam?
I see the changes in mostly positive ways.
For example, people used to go to Sa Pa mainly on the overnight train but now, as the road access has improved, it is easier to get to the town, meaning that more people can experience this beautiful part of the country.
As people become wealthier and the country continues to develop over the next decade, it will be interesting to see how Vietnam changes. I hope that, along with development, the country can balance progress with preserving the charming aspects of Vietnamese life, culture, and history.
As they say, even an end has a start, what is your next project?
I have some personal projects that I would like to do. I have an interest in dance and movement photography and would like to start a personal project in those fields in 2018. I would also like to travel to some of the more remote and less visited parts of Vietnam.
A camera is a passport that provides the photographer with access to many things that you would otherwise not experience. Photography is an adventure and leads to an interesting and varied life.
|Neil Featherstone. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre News|
How has Vietnam created a new you?
It’s a good question. I came here to live because I wanted a more interesting and less formulaic life.
I wondered for some years whether leaving my old life behind would be a good thing or a mistake but having made the decision, my only regret is that I did not make the change sooner!
It’s strange in a way that in moving here to live I have ended up doing exactly what I wanted to do in my youth, making photographs and writing, so in a way Vietnam has brought me a full circle.
Some of Neil Featherstone's photos in his project last year for the two new books:
|Con Son Island Sunset|
|Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum|
|Long Bien Bridge|
|Tet Flower Seller|
|Smoke and Prayer|