Merman’s Song


Yesterday I was invited to an Instagram Live interview with a good friend of mine, Abby Dione.  She wanted to talk about staying happy, healthy, and creative in this time of COVID-19 and being stuck at home.  She and I have a way of communicating in the abstract that can be infuriating and impenetrable to listeners.  When she asked me to share a story about working as an adventure photographer and director, I have to admit that I flailed to find an appropriate story.  Put on the spot I wasn’t ready to draw on the right anecdote.  A close critic pointed this out to me and I vowed to repair that malady, both in the immediate sense (below) and as a vow of character going forward.

I’ve written before (admittedly in the abstract) about the experience of making the film ”Chu Bien” with Osprey Packs and Dan Holz.  Below follows a more personal exploration of the experience of making a travel/adventure film.  I hope you enjoy reading it:


Getting the Shot

Chu Bien

The night was calm at least.  Waves lapped at the mottled planks of the hull and the noisy cities of Vietnam were far beyond reach now.  Still, my consciousness ebbed and flowed relentlessly.  Dreams and half-woken moments in the sweaty berth of the junk were equally plagued by obsessions about the direction of this damned film.  

We’d been shooting for a couple days now and I still wasn’t seeing the full scope of the story.  Somewhere in this character piece was an arc that would tie together into a watchable documentary.  We were supposed to be trolling the emotional depths of this elderly Vietnamese man, but whether it was pride or shame that kept us from breaking through, we weren’t getting anywhere.  He was joyous and happy, we knew that - perhaps that’s all we’d ever know.  Careful not to wake Dan sleeping next to me I made a night-blind note in my moleskin journal, “pre-interview subjects before production starts”.  Too late for that now anyway.

I gave up on sleep sometime before dawn.  Half naked for the oppressive weight of the southern heat, I wound my way through the narrow doors and halls to the aft deck.  Chu (Uncle) Bien had left somewhere for the night - he would be back soon, probably expecting to wake us all with the clatter of his little diesel runabout.  Eventually we would use his little coracle shaped boat to shuttle our crew to the overhanging limestone climbs for which this bay is so well known.  Deep water soloing sounded like a reward that I hadn’t quite earned yet.

A fine misting rain began to fall just before the sun could color the skies of Cat Ba.  What little quiet we could have expected from an early morning shoot were rapidly disappearing into the fattening patter of rain on the ocean.  The sun, likewise, disappeared, flattening the landscape in a two dimensional, drab monotone pallette.  Grey limestone karst jutting from a grey ocean reflecting a grey sky.  

Chu Bien had spent over a decade of his life fighting for either the North or against them.  He was vague on that point but here in the country where the blood had been shed, the  importance of that detail seemed somehow moot.  He’d buried that detail along with most other personal inquiries over the past few days.  His character, his spirit, his person, remained hidden behind an armor of smiles (even if that armor was missing a few teeth).

The sound of a diesel engine began to chatter.  Whether distant or close it was impossible to tell as the sound echoed over water and stone only to be muffled by the heavy air.  My chance to finally break through the social armor of this old vet was approaching.  I went back inside to put on a shirt, collect my camera off the floor, and wake Dan.

Chu Bien clattered his way up alongside our anchored junk - the little vessel drifting to a gentle and respectable stop at the edge of the larger.  His hair was parted neatly and was wet with morning mist.  He wore the same shirt and trousers he’d worn the last several days.  “God Mohnin,” he smiled broadly, as we climbed down onto the loose planks of his boat.  How he managed to make that maw of broken teeth look so friendly was sometimes beyond me.  Perhaps that’s what we’d answer this morning.

The rain intensified and pinged loudly off the taut tarp strung over the otherwise open wheelhouse/focsle/galley.  Chu Bien had been preparing for this moment, we knew, so I asked if he could help us get tucked away from the rain so our audio could be cleaner.  The below-deck engine, which he controlled mostly with his bare feet and a piano network of strings chattered up to a dull roar.  Some deft maneuvering placed us in the eroded hollow of a massive karst.  As long as the tide was down, we’d be able to camp under here away from the rain.  Chu Bien pushed a wooden lever one notch along the deck, pulled on a short string and the engine cut to silence.  Other than the sound of his little stool creaking on the deck, we were in a moment of bliss (or at least manageable environmental ambience).

“Camera A speed”.

“Camera B speed”.

“Sound Speed…Ok Chu Bien, ready?”


A shaky song started in Uncle Bien.  His voice warmed through the first verse and began to swell.  Something simple, something he knew well, but resonant with the history and sense of place he’d otherwise been unable to communicate to us through interview.  He was vulnerable to us for a moment now, his face younger but at once infinitely older.  The rain abated and he picked up a paddle to push us out from the shelter of our little limestone amphitheater, his voice growing as we drifted into the bay.

Vietnam, Vietnam!”  That song is still echoing in my mind today, years later.  The courage of his youth bouncing off the calm waters of the bay and reverberating back through him.  He was proud.  Proud of the modest life he’d built, proud of the hard work he’d put into his dreams and his country.  He’d kept it simple and pure and left the rest of his life open and ready for an easy laugh.

We’d wanted to break down his armor to look for wisdom, but he’d lived such a spartan life that he wore that he had nowhere to hide anything.  His wisdom was his armor was his joy. 

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