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A Photographer's Guide to Vietnam

by Quang-Tuan Luong, 2001


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 Myanmar.

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.

A few highlights

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 check the Vietnam Photography Gallery where you will find 300 images grouped by regions, as well as a map of the country.

People

Returning from the fields with the buffalo Hanoi-born teachers in the remote mountain outpost of Can Cau School kids in colorfull everyday dress Colorful crowd at the sunday market, where people from the surrounding hamlets gather weekly to meet, shop and eat

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.

Architecture

Even far in the south, cultural chinese influence is obvious. Temple near Ha Tien Detail of the thousands hands of a Buddha statue Red color is believed to be lucky. Urn and incense coils, Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh city The great Cao Dai temple, with its oriental and occidental features, reflects the religion's eclectism Vegetation invades ruined Cham temple, My Son Old houses, Hoi An Ngo Mon (noon) gate. The citadel used to be the imperial palace of the Nguyen dynasty starting from the XVIIIth century Thien Mu pagoda Stone Tablets engraved with laureate mandarin names in the Temple of Literature. The civil servant recruitment system was identical to imperial China's (and modern France) Statue of a medieval king of Vietnam, Hoa Lu Troglodyte sanctuary near Tam Coc Troglodyte sanctuary near Tam Coc

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.

Landscapes

Sunrise, Ha Tien Boat and limestone towers, undeveloped beach, Hon Chong peninsula Pagoda set aside one of the many lakes Central range plunges into the sea at Lang Co General view of the bay with its three thousands limestone islets The return trip after the pilgrimnage Rice fields among the karstic mountains of Tam Coc Terraced rice fields Hills of the Blue Country

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 border.

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 interesting.

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.

Equipment

Local conditions.

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 lenses.

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.

Film

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.

Tripod

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.

Photography logistics

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.

Photographic restrictions

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.

Guidebooks

  • Lonely Planet : 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.
  • Rough guide : the information seems to be very similar to the previous one, with maybe better cultural/historical information.
  • Footprint : again pretty similar information, with the advantage that almost no other tourist will carry the same book as you.

Photography books

  • 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 CD ROM is also worth having, for its superb use of the medium.
  • Pain and Grace : A Journey Through Vietnam : the work of a single photojournalist, Jim Gensheimer, this book captures in deeply emotional images the complexity of modern Vietnam.

All text and pictures are Quang-Tuan Luong? 2001


More

Stories

Photo Essays

Other Internet Resources for Vietnam




All text and pictures in above section are copyright Philip Greenspun or Ted Guhl. PhotoCD scans by Advanced Digital Imaging.

Article created 2001

Readers' Comments


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Krishna Swamy , January 06, 2002; 03:42 P.M.

Quang-Tuan - very nice photographs (credit to the photographer(s), whoever that may be) and so is the accompanying article. Vietnam is now firmly on my agenda. Thanks.

Tommy Huynh , August 21, 2002; 10:46 P.M.

Fantastic Quang, every photo looks like it came out of a coffee table book. Bravo.

John Addison , March 03, 2003; 01:11 A.M.

I just spent 3 months in central Vietnam (Binh Dinh Province). The only comment I would add is that as of February 2003, Fuji film is readily available through the ubiquitous Fuji photo stores. I'm not sure about slide film though. The processing was done using the Fuji Frontier in two places I saw. I only shoot black and white (not available) so didn't have any personal experience with the developing. I also had no trouble taking lots of film in and out of the country, or having it hand inspected. The carry-on x-rays I saw are modern and film safe, but the x-rays used for checked luggage are probably not. A very good article.

Hayley Q , March 23, 2003; 04:07 P.M.

I just wanted to say "Thank you" to everyone who contributed to the commentary on Mr Guhl's article about his travel to VN....(Mr. Lyndon Bird, Mr. Kevin Carroll, K. Nguyen, Ms. Esther Dang, and all...sorry I can't remember everyone's names...) Also, "Thank you, Mr. Guhl" for your article. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam and I am very interested in learning about my country, the culture, people, etc....whether it be bad or good. I immigrated to the USA when I was a little girl in order to escape the Communist regime. I am very thankful for the educational and economic opportunities that America had offered my family and me. Anyway, I do agree with those who commented that instead of feeding the source of problem (getting lured by prostitutions, giving them money, etc..), we as tourists visiting any country, we should show our loves, respects, friendships, etc. to the natives. Every place has its good and bad sides.

Hayley Q , March 23, 2003; 04:18 P.M.

Thank you very much, Mr. Quang-Tuan Luong for the information of Vietnam and the beautiful photographs of this country. I am looking forward to more information and photographs of Vietnam from you in the future. Thank you for this terrific work!!!!!!! Hayley Q.

Ben Johnson , November 29, 2004; 07:13 P.M.


Lanterns in Hoi An, Canon F-1, 85/1.8, Fuji Reala

There are many photo labs in Hanoi; I just wanted to share my experience with a particularly good one: Photo Phong at 55 P. Ma May in the Old Quarter. I recently spent quite a bit of time in Hanoi and had a number of rolls of Reala and XP2 processed at this lab. The quality of the printing was better than almost any pro lab that I can think of in Vancouver. I was actually disappointed that most of the film I was shooting included processing back home. The owner, Phong, is incredibly nice as well. If you are looking for pro film (something other than the ubiquitous Superia, Konica and Gold), there's a chance that he'll have some, or order some.

Wee Keng_Hor , August 11, 2006; 11:54 P.M.

Went to Hoian recently for a short trip. Lots of photo opportunity.

Chuck Kuhn , November 14, 2007; 02:56 A.M.

Having photographed Vietnam in 2005 and 2006. I find the article to be right on. Its about the people. I'm a member of the Hanoi Photo club (I live in California)great site and if you travel to Vietnam, especially Hanoi, please contact the site, they will give you welcome tour. Check out www.pbase.com/ckuhn55/vietnam_2005 also pictures of Bac Ha, Sapa, and the complete coastline. Enjoy ckuhn55@msn.com

Jonny Platt , April 17, 2008; 04:48 P.M.

Thank you Quang, for a great article. As I read it I noticed the photos looked familiar, and when I saw the link to terragalleria I realised it was because I'd come across your photos when I was deciding to move to Vietnam several years ago and they were so beautiful I think they became a deciding factor in moving there! I loved my Vietnam travel and can't wait to go back there!

Matt Sutton , June 24, 2008; 10:21 P.M.

thanks Quang. This is a wonderful article and I you have listed lots of vital information that I have found very helpful !! Thanks so much !! Now all I have to do is work out which gear to take !!!

Matt Sutton , June 24, 2008; 10:21 P.M.

thanks Quang. This is a wonderful article and you have listed lots of vital information that I have found very helpful !! Thanks so much !! Now all I have to do is work out which gear to take !!!

Jonas Linh , February 25, 2009; 11:08 P.M.


Ao dai

The most famous vietnam traditional clothing is Ao dai!

huong thu , May 21, 2009; 09:34 P.M.

I'm proud of being a Vietnamese citizen. Vietnam has so many beautiful places that you can go for sightseeing and photo taking. Getting a visa to Vietnam now is also easier than ever before. Why don't you come and visit Vietnam right now?

Image Attachment: filefeRbAN.jpg

tamma srinivasa reddy , June 29, 2009; 10:22 A.M.

thank you very much your information about Vietnam excellent.i am very happy ,and ususefull to other our photographers. T SRINIVASA REDDY FFIP,FPSS,ARPS,AIIPC,AICS,ABPPA

Alice Vu , January 28, 2010; 08:04 A.M.

1. In case you enter Vietnam by air -Apply for Vietnam Visa on arrival at http://www.vietnamvisa-online.com or http://www.visaforvietnam.org -Receive visa approval letter after 1 or 2 working days. - Print the letter out and bring it together with your photos + passport +some dollars pay for stamping visa at Vietnam airport.

2. In case you enter Vietnam overland or by ship, train, etc. You should apply for visa code (the visa to pick up at your nearest Vietnam Embassy/Consulate). There are two options for getting your visa code:

The first is applying for visa approval code at http://www.vietnamvisa-online.com or http://www.visaforvietnam.org , after 1 or 2 working days, print the received visa approval code by Vietnam Immigration Department and bring it to the registered Vietnam Embassy to stamp visa.

The second way is that you yourself go to Vietnam Embassy to apply for visa (Normally take 3 to 5 days). This way is more time consuming, and expensive (the fee is USD 70 averagely)

Kelly Bui , October 04, 2010; 02:16 P.M.

I would recommend you to visit Halong Bay - one of the most beautiful destination in Vietnam. I have been there more than 50 times but each time with me always becoming new and attracted. To prepare a Halong Bay trip, just think about your budget and then choose a suitable boat/cruise. Most of the cruises on Halong Bay nowadays are good qualities and itineraries. You will need more information from travel consultant. When you are ready, let's go. You should not miss a wonderful place like Halong Bay in Vietnam.

Henry Richardson , November 28, 2010; 10:22 P.M.

I liked your photos and thanks for writing the article!  I just got back from a month in Vietnam and was also there in 2000.  I have some of my photos here in the Vietnam gallery:

http://www.bakubo.com

Krista Giang , December 28, 2010; 09:39 P.M.

Getting Vietnam VISA Made Easy

For those who would like to avoid the perhaps lengthening visa procedures with their local Vietnam's Embassies, the service of Vietnam Visa on arrival is available for help. It is legitimated and supported by the Vietnamese Immigration Department. We recommend that you choose visa upon arrival, as picking up visa at the Vietnam int'l airport is quite simple, easy, no additional charges and no fail.

Etienne Bossot , December 16, 2011; 01:26 A.M.


Famer taking rice during the sunset tour

If you are in Hoi An and wish to see the non touristy Vietnam while learning about photography, I highly recommend trying the Hoi An Photo Tour and Workshop, led by a professional photographer. The tours have been running for 2 years and are a great success, awesome opportunities to get close to the locals and witness the real Vietnam!

Helen Queen , July 30, 2012; 05:54 A.M.

Thanks Tuan Luong for such a great post. Let's travel to Vietnam and discovery it on your own. We are pleased to be here, giving you a hand on getting Vietnam visa for your trip to Vietnam.

Alex Sheal , February 06, 2014; 01:17 A.M.


On the Tracks Tour, Hanoi

For unique, photo tours of Hanoi and Northern Vietnam, check out Vietnam in Focus - www.vietnaminfocus.com.  Tour leader Colm Pierce's work has featured in numerous publications worldwide, including The Guardian (UK), Le Figaro (France) and LA Times (USA).  A long-term resident of Hanoi, he can show you the hidden side of the capital and incredible north, and how to get pictures that live up to the experience.


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