Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
Vietnam is a country full of photographic opportunities. The landscape is
diverse and includes a very long and beautiful coastline, karstic rock
formations, and mountains. Because Vietnam is just doing its first steps in the
modern world (unlike Thailand or China which are much more developed) there are
still plenty of opportunities to observe traditional lifestyles and traditions.
People have an amazing ethnic diversity and most like to be photographed. There
is also interesting architecture all around the country, although it is not as
spectacular as in other countries of South-East Asia such as Cambodia or
Now is a good time to visit Vietnam. Vietnam opened itself to tourism in the
late 80s. At the beginning there were still a lot of red tape and travel
restrictions, and the tourist infrastructure was quite poor. In the late 90s I
found it easy to travel in Vietnam. The country is industrializing extremely
quickly to meet the needs of its dense population. Things are changing very fast,
in a few years, the traditional way of life might be gone, and uncontrolled
development might have spoiled some of the finest scenery.
The following are a few suggestions, based on subject category. For a more
detailed idea of what each region has to offer photographically, I recommend you
Gallery where you will find 300 images grouped by regions, as well as a map
of the country.
My primary subject in Vietnam has always been the people. You will find that
they are very approachable and most of the time don't mind being photographed.
The kids just love it and will often ask you to take a picture of them, even when
they know that their chance of seeing it is almost nil. In general, the less
developed (westernized) a place is, the more approachable and curious the people
will be. If you travel with someone who speaks Vietnamese, he can often convince
strangers to pose for you, or often you will be able to ask/direct people by sign
language. A smile, gesture pointing to the camera, will often be all it takes. In
Vietnam (or anywhere else for that matter) don't treat people like wildlife.
Establish a relationship with them, if only for a few minutes. Learn a few words
of the language. In general, the people who object to being photographed would be
young women, out of shyness more than anything else.
In any town, the market would be a good place to start for street photography.
In particular the Cholon (the Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown) markets are
particularly lively. There are wholesale markets there which are very interesting
to see. In general, The smaller the town, the more authentic the atmosphere will
be. The rural lifestyle hasn't changed much in centuries. One of the most
interesting sights in the Delta are the floating markets and associated river
life. Near Can Tho, there are three different floating markets. Although they are
well-known, the level of "commercialization" is still considerably less than the
floating markets of Thailand. Often you won't see other travellers on the water
at all. Often, the North will be more authentic, but more reserved, less open and
welcoming at first. You will find in the far north mountains the highest
concentration of well-preserved hill-tribe culture. The Sapa market now is
visited by almost as many tourists as local people, but others, such as the
markets around Bac Ha, are still very authentic and would be a unique experience.
Most of the hill-tribe people don't mind the camera, however, there are some
ethnic groups which are camera-shy, such as the Dzao. Don't harass them.
The South, being settled more recently (Saigon has only 300 years) has less
interesting architecture than other parts of the country. However, the Great Cao
Dai temple in Tay Ninh and the Chinese temples in Cholon are not to be missed.
The ceremony at the Great Cao Dai temple takes place at noon (there are three
others during the day, but it's too dark then). Past the first half-hour, the
crowds of tourists in the observation balcony will thin out, so there is no need
to jockey for position.
In the center, most of the city of Hoi An has well preserved ancient homes. In
that area, there are some interesting Cham archeological sites, and the Danang's
marble mountains have some of the finest troglodyte sanctuaries I have ever seen.
The imperial citadel of Hue used to rival Beijing's forbidden city, but most of
it was destroyed during the Tet offensive in 1968. However the imperial
mausoleums spread along the Perfume river are well preserved.
Besides communist monuments (and one of the only remaining Lenin statues),
Hanoi and its surrounding have numerous ancient temples, especially near Ninh
Binh, where you'll also find an interesting church built in local style. Hanoi
itself has the nostalgia of a fading postcard of colonial French architecture.
The stained and aging painted walls have a lot of character.
The delta being quite flat, most of the interesting landscapes there will be
on the coast, especially near the Cambodia border where it gets more mountainous.
The central portion of the cost is beautiful, with the mountains dropping into
the South China Sea. The road between Da Nang and Hue is particularly scenic.
There are remarkable karstic formations in the North, comparable to some the
better known sites of South China. The site of Halong Bay is deservedly famous,
but it can be challenging to get a good picture there. You are pretty far from
the rocks, and on a boat, the perspective is not right. There, I favor the less
touristic Hon Gai side, where mining activity and fishing boats make an
interesting foreground. The site of Tam Coc has similarly shaped rocks, but
instead of being in the sea, they are among cultivated rice fields. The most
beautiful and wild mountain scenery are in the far north regions near the China
How to travel
For most independent travelers, the cheapest and most convenient way to see a
lot of the country is to use local budget travel agencies (such as Cafe Sinh).
However, if you are serious about photography, I would recommend that you avoid
using those tours. They try to pack a lot of travel into a relatively short time,
and you'll find that being in a group will not leave you the freedom you need to
explore and be in the right place at the right time. A better alternative would
be to travel from one city to another on public or private bus system, and then
spend time on your own exploring the cities. The drawback is that you will see
plenty of interesting rural scenes while riding on a very slow (by occidental
standards) bus, and you will wish you could get out. It's pretty difficult to get
a decent photo from a bus window while the bus is bouncing around.
The best solution is to rent a car and driver. The driver comes for free as
you're mostly paying for the vehicle and mileage, at rates which locally look
exorbitant but are actually comparable to those found in the West. He sometimes
can serve as your guide, helping with lodging and meal arrangements, as well as
facilitating your communication with the locals. It is a good idea to try to go
on a shorter trip with him before committing to hire him for the whole length of
your trip. Many drivers do not speak English, in which case you will also need a
guide/interpret. As a foreigner, you are not permitted to drive a vehicle in
Vietnam, and you will soon realize that there is a good reason for that. Local
drivers seem to enjoy speeding on one-lane roads which are clogged with
pedestrians, animals, bicycles, and motorcycles (which drive at night without
lights). The main traffic rule is that the right of way belongs to the biggest,
or most resolute vehicle. With your own vehicle, you can go where you want, when
you want, and more importantly stop on the road if you see something
There are also a number of places where you'll be traveling on water (the
Delta, Nha Trang, Halong, the Perfume river...). Consider renting your own boat
for the same reasons as above. It's not so expensive.
When you are staying in a large city, a car is not necessary. Instead, what I
like to do is to ride on the back of a moto-taxi. This is fairly inexpensive, and
fast, and makes it easy to stop when you want. Cyclos are a good option too if
you have time, since you can photograph from them. Ask your hotel/guesthouse
manager to recommend you someone to take you for a ride, rather than picking
someone at random. You'll get more dependable and safe service this way.
You might think that because this is the tropics, there is plenty of light,
but don't make the mistake of bringing only slow film. Because the sun there is
so high, even more than anywhere else, on sunny days the only nice light appears
early in the morning and late in the afternoon, so you'll be facing reduced
levels. Because of the ever present atmospheric haze, sunsets and sunrises give a
very warm and soft light which is particularly beautiful. During midday, most
people take refuge in the shade (not that you'd like to shoot portraits in the
harsh light anyways), where it can gets fairly dark. In the North, it often gets
overcast while the South is sunny and hot. You will need fairly fast film or
Typically (except for a few months) day time temperature is about 90 F with
high humidity. It will be pretty tiring to walk around, so it would help not to
carry a ton of gear.
You can find locally cheap negative film. On the other hand, if you are
shooting slide film or B&W, better bring everything you will need with you.
Those two kinds of film are pretty rare. The problem is that often film have been
stocked for a long time in hot conditions. Fuji film can probably be found only
in a few stores in Ho Chi Minh city and one store in Hanoi.
I can make only recommendations for slide film, as I use only occasionally
other types. For general purpose use, I like Fuji Astia/Sensia II. The usable
dynamic range is better than most slide films due to the lower contrast, and the
skin tones are very natural. Velvia is great for scenics in good light, or under
overcast conditions (where a tripod might be necessary). If you find that under
overcast skies, Astia tends to be a bit dull, you can try Kodak E 100 VS, which
gives you color characteristics quite close to Velvia, but with an extra stop.
Think also about packing some film for use at 200 or even 400 ASA.
Cameras and lenses
You won't need long telephoto lenses. Distant views tend to be too hazy, and
people are approachable. The longest I had is a 200 and this was plenty. On the
other hand, street scenes tend to get crowded, and you will often get close to
your subjects, so having at least a 28 is a must. What I found with Astia is that
at mid day, in the shade, the exposure was very often between 1/15 and 1/60 at
f4. This means that if you are using a consumer zoom, you won't have enough light
to hand-hold and get a sharp image. You could forego the convenience of zooms,
and go with a few primes, or carry a big f2.8 zoom. If you do so, you might find
that the depth of field is too small for some subjects (like the vendor standing
in front of a stand of interesting tropical fruits). Personally I have found the
28-135 IS lens from Canon to be extremely practical.
In my opinion, the most interesting subjects in Vietnam involve people, and
therefore a tripod would not be of use most of the time. However, it will come in
handy for sunrise and sunset scenics, overcast conditions, as well as
photographing inside temples and other ancient buildings. If you visit the Great
Cao Dai temple or some troglodyte sanctuaries without a tripod, you might regret
it. My advice: bring a small one, such as the Gitzo 026 or 1127/28. Leave it in
your luggage, except in the previously mentioned situations.
Getting your film out
You might have read in an older edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook about
an incident where some foreigners were not allowed to leave the country with a
large amount unexposed film, so they had to have the film processed locally, and
then the police examined every frame and "censored" a few. This was a concern of
my relatives, because I had exposed a suspicious amount of film (more than a
hundred rolls). It is something that you still hear from time to time if you
inquire officially. I tried to see if I couldn't get around the situation by
Fedexing the film, but the Fedex agent said that they were prohibited by the
government from exporting unexposed film. Of course I was not found of having my
film processed locally (see below).
However, at the airport there was absolutely no problem, and the agent
accepted readily not to x-ray the film (even though I didn't have $5 bills
inserted into my passport). I departed the country twice from Saigon, once from
Hanoi without difficulty. Things have been much more easy on tourists recently,
so I don't think you should worry if you carry the film with you. Do not leave
the film in your luggage. Someone has reported that unprocessed rolls were
removed by airport personnel.
The x-ray machines at the Saigon and Hanoi airport look modern (and therefore
not likely to damage film), but I would still insist on hand-inspection. I have
not found it difficult to obtain. I suspect a "tip" would solve any problems.
There might be older machines hanging around in smaller airports, although at the
Hue airport they didn't have any at all !
Camera stores and labs
There are many one-hour labs which do a decent job for cheap (equivalent to
the supermarket labs in the US). In general, slide processing is not reliable.
Labs do not change the chemicals as often as they should. Consistently High
quality processing is not readily available in Vietnam. For best quality, process
at home !
In Ho Chi Minh city, there is a Fuji lab is on Le Than Ton street in central
Saigon, close to the city hall. They stock most of Fuji films in all common
formats (35mm, 120) and are able to process 120. The price is comparable to
Europe (ie 75% above B&H prices). I've talked to the owner and he seems to
know what he's doing, but I haven't used them for processing. In 1998, this was
one of the only places to carry Fuji film. Kodak is much more common, although
don't expect a large choice. Outside of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, the only
slide film I saw was Ektachrome Elite 100. Nguyen Hue avenue has many camera
stores, which have almost everything you could look for, including fancy 35mm and
MF stuff. The prices seemed to be 10% lower than B&H.
In Hanoi, Fuji films can be found at: "Ho Guom Prolab and Studio". Le Thai To
street, near the Hoang Kiem lake and the old city. A few blocks on the same
street, there is "Le Thanh", which although it is probably the best stocked
camera store in Hanoi, doesn't have much stuff.
Do not photograph anything which might be military sensitive, or police doing
their duty if you don't want to risk your film confiscated. Once in the mountains
I was photographing scenery, and a plain clothes policeman came and harassed me,
claiming that I was photographing a bridge.
: the classical independent traveler guidebook with the best maps. I
used the previous editions with satisfaction. They have also cities, language,
cycling, and even food guidebooks too.
: the information seems to be very similar to the previous one, with
maybe better cultural/historical information.
again pretty similar information, with the advantage that almost no other tourist
will carry the same book as you.
Passage to Vietnam
: compiled from the work of seventy photographers, this book was
the first to give a good portrait of Vietnam, and it is still the best. The
is also worth having, for its superb use of the medium.