Dana Filek-Gibson explains the story behind the photo in this month’s trial biking feature.
This was supposed to be a guerrilla shoot.
In and out, just a few people, some flashes, a camera and our subject, Ngo Minh Tu, Saigon’s only trial biker. Because jumping over obstacles and balancing, one-wheeled on streetside obstacles is generally frowned upon by security guards the world over, our photograph of Tu would have to be quick and well-executed.
We met on a Sunday evening in District 7 – Tu, our photographer Vinh, art director Kendra, writer Mike and myself – along a quiet street interrupted by some narrow park grounds. After finishing off an energy drink Tu, the 24-year-old trial biker, led us down the street and into a dark, tree-lined area near the main road where we could set up a test shot. As we traveled down along the street, Tu bunny-hopped over speedbumps and scaled curbs. A few feet behind, Vinh attempted the same bunny hops on a motorbike to no success.
A series of orange and white barriers like building blocks separate the small roads behind Ton Dat Tien from the general traffic. Tu dismantled one portion of the roadblock, placing the barrier pieces side-by-side, and pronounced the obstacle fit for a jump. In one swift motion, he cut a circle on the pavement back out toward the streetlights before looping in and soaring over the barrier, again making the trick seem effortless.
But when the camera was set up and the photo assistants in position, lighting in hand, the first photo we took was nearly the last photo we took. As soon as Tu achieved lift-off, flying over the barrier for our first shot, the lights on either side of him exploded, their rapid-fire flash creating a strobe effect as he soared through the air. His first words upon landing: “I can’t see.”
Still, Tu was game to keep trying, and so we spent another 20 minutes in the dark, pointing strobe lights at his eyes as he nailed jump after jump over the roadblock. Satisfied enough to move to the real location, a long, wavy bench along the main street, Vinh and Kendra left to set up the real shot and Tu, Mike and I hung out on a set of steps nearby, waiting for the go-ahead.
But what was meant to be a quick, barely conspicuous photograph turned out to attract zero security guards but plenty of passersby. After all, it’s not everyday you see a bike with no seat in this city. Or someone who can wait patiently, balanced on the back wheel, ready to jump off a bench upon request. And so, free from the worry of losing our location, Tu began to experiment, hopping over obstacles and off steps. Every time we asked him to try something different, Tu would come out with another trick, a new way of balancing on two wheels that none of us had even considered. The same response came every time: “That’s cool. That’s really, really cool.
In the end, we got out photograph, which you can see in the November issue of AsiaLIFE, now available both online and around the city. Vinh began to pack up his photo equipment. A series of thank yous and goodbyes commenced. As we waited around for everyone to gather up their belongings, Tu told me he could “weave through people” on his bike and asked if I wanted to see. I said yes. His reply: “Ok, lie down.”
This is what happened instead.
Special thanks to Ngo Minh Tu for his patience and for being a good sport and jumping over any and every obstacle we could find. To learn more about Tu and trial biking in Saigon, check out this month’s trial biking feature.