Just south of Da Nang lies the amazing Hoi An, a proud little old town made of enchanting yellow walls and old bridges.
Photography in Hoi An has been one of my highlights in the country, a unique experience that starts at sunrise and finishes in the romantic lights of the night.
This post has been written by our collaborator Marco Carrubba who provided also all the photos.
Table of Contents
A coastal town that touches the Thu Bon river, Hoi An is an extraordinary example of a once very active and important Vietnamese port, animated by Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch traders exchanging hands for silk, pottery and china, and spices.
Amazing architecture, traditions, memories, and people’s smiles have turned this trading city into a favourite tourist destination.
And if you travelling through Vietnam, you should read our Travel Photography Guide to Vietnam and watch the video below
Photography in Hoi An, with a tour or DIY?
The city architectural style features buildings from colonial European to Chinese and even old Japanese style, 844 of which belong to the UNESCO list.
Many of them are yellow, each one with a slightly different shade, providing a special mood in the city. A mood that has been lasting for centuries.
Why yellow? Yellow symbolizes royalty and superiority in Vietnam’s culture. But also, yellow absorbs less heat which is handy during summertime.
To photographers, this soft and warm tone gives a lot of opportunities to take great photos, as these walls represent the perfect background when photographing both locals or tourists.
Also, given the humidity in the air all year round, moss tends to build on buildings and its green colour draws beautiful contrasts and patterns which can enrich the texture of your background further.
As always, there are pros and cons in touring independently, or with a local guide especially if the guide is a skilled photographer himself.
Going solo is the perfect excuse to explore with an open mind: following the instinct to look for new passages, interesting scenes or simply looking for people and their interactions, which can give that special and unrepeatable touch to your otherwise boring “postcard” photos.
On the other side, touring with an expert local guide can save you time and avoid missing the best spots and opportunities.
It helps to nurture new ideas and learn new points of view. Try to limit the size of your group, so you can customize your whereabouts and maximize the value of your time even further.
Choosing one or the other depends on your skills, mood, and personal preference not to mention cost or available time.
Also, your level of knowledge on the local culture may have an influence on the choice as an expert guide could actually also act as an introduction to local habits.
Photography in Hoi An can look simple with so many beautiful buildings around, but there is so much more than that.
For this particular trip, I was lucky: I had the time to experience both options starting with an introduction with a local photographer called Etienne (more later) and then gaining the confidence to experiment solo.
Best time of the day for photography n Hoi An
As a street photography addict, I usually say that the best time for photography is, of course, the golden hour – both ad dawn and sunset.
However, photography in Hoi An is a bit special: not only the city transforms itself during the dark, but you have to be aware that the city is also linked to another peculiar time routine.
Everything is quiet in Hoi An at dawn and sunset, but extremely busy between approximately 11am to 4pm.
The reason is simple: most of the tourists (Chinese, South Koreans and Japanese) sleep in the nearby city of Da Nang and therefore flock to the city only between mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
So, if you want to do some street photography in Hoi An, you may think of looking for the locals during the golden hour, whilst tourists are the obvious majority during the day.
There is nothing wrong in having fun photographing tourists as well, so any time of the day is a good time in Hoi An. Needless to say, it can be very hot when the tourists are around.
As I love markets because they are the signature of any local culture, I normally cannot miss a session there, so I decided to visit Hoi An’s oldest market – Hoi An Central Market.
Central Market is in the old town right by the water’s edge and a fascinating place to visit.
Luckily this is a market visited by the locals early in the morning, so one day I had an early start and found a thriving local environment.
May I suggest to be there at the first light which for me was around 6am: you will find activity down there, way beyond the advertised opening hours.
The market is mainly selling food and some flowers. There’s also the Street Food Stalls within the Central Market in the covered area – these serve great breakfasts, lunch and dinners. Not to miss!
Great photography spots in Hoi An
Hoi An is a photography paradise, not just for the yellow walls in the old city, but also because of its beaches and lush rice fields.
All these are easily accessible with a bicycle, so I would suggest renting one so you may go around and freely explore.
This is probably the most photogenic area, with its yellow walls, lots and lots of beautifully restored and reconstructed buildings, the thriving Central market and the ancient Japanese covered bridge. Did I mention the locals and the tourists invading town across midday?
Located at the northern end of Cua Dai this quiet little beach spot is a great escape from the hustle of Hoi An: at sunset or dawn you can probably take more picture of the ubiquitous bamboo boats than tourists. And take a swim!
There’s plenty of great rice fields around Hoi An which you can picture perfect in the soft lighting of sunrise. One great spot that I found while cycling from the city centre towards the beaches was along Hai Bà Trưng.
Tam Thanh Hanh Mural Village
An hour’s drive south of Hoi An lies an entire street art village. The works of art were painted in just 20 days in 2016 by a group of Korean volunteers in a collaboration with the Quang Nam Province.
If you have spare time take a few pictures at the Vietnamese Heroic Mother Statue on the way there.
Photography at night in the old town
Hoi An offers a very different atmosphere by night, not just because the city empties itself quite considerably compared to the daytime, but also because it switches from yellow city to paper lantern candles town.
In fact, at 8pm all fluorescent lights are turned off and the city creates a magical glow.
Take the opportunity to walk around the riverfront and make use of long exposure techniques to capture the light of the lanterns, hundred colours of the lightbulbs and the amazing reflections of the cobblestone streets.
During my last visit I also focused my photography attention on the Japanese covered bridge.
This bridge was built in 17th century and is the unique symbol of Hoi An. The bridge is illuminated by many colourful lights during the night and a picture is really worth taking.
There is a secondary wood bridge in front of it. Look for a non-wobbling wooden board and place your camera (or your tripod) on top of it.
Unfortunately, there’s quite some traffic on the bridge and you risk your picture being blurred if you use a long exposure setting.
What I ended up doing was waiting well after midnight so that only a few people would actually go over the bridge. The problem is that the lights of the bridge were then switched off.
So, I set up the camera for a five minute long exposure and then I walked across the bridge numerous times, illuminating the features of the bridge with a torch.
Amazing picture, amazing experience. Lots of people looking at me as if I were mad. I totally enjoyed painting the bridge with light!
Lastly, there is an event not to be missed in Hoi An: the Lantern Full Moon Festival.
It takes place on the 14th day of each lunar month. I missed it this time, but maybe you can time your visit exactly when it happens and let me know how it was!
Photography exhibition in Hoi An (must see)
I was lucky to stumble upon a (free) exhibition of French photographer Rehahn.
Rehahn specializes in documentary photography and focuses on people, rather than places.
His museum and exhibition, which opened in 2017, showcase his portraits of Vietnam’s diverse ethnic groups, their traditional costumes, stories, music and artefacts.
His pictures are definitely inspiring, and they actually come with a lot of background explanations.
Not to be missed, especially if you plan to make your way to the northern part of the country – you will have a bit of facts and education that will empower you to better enjoy knowing the people of those rural areas of Vietnam.
A great Photography Tour in Hoi An
During my trip to Hoi An I had the pleasure to spend some time with Etienne Bossot, a local photographer who runs Hoi An Photo Tours.
It was one of the best experiences with a photographer and definitely the best use of my time whilst I was there.
Remember when I said to find somebody local who could bring you places? Well, look no further.
Etienne not only knows the right places, but also speaks the local language so he was able to unlock the trust of the locals and have them participate into my own Vietnamese storytelling.
On top of being an extremely easy going person, Etienne is also a phenomenal photographer who can share his passion to all levels of audience in a very captivating way.
What did I learn from the photography tour
I learned quite a few new photography tricks, which I now treasure.
Etienne helped me developing this relentless focus on fading the attention of the people being photographed away from the camera by means of distracting them with what they were doing – either their job, or something they had in their hands, or what they were selling.
He taught me how to balance the light by taking a meter on the blue sky and then shooting for the right exposure.
He showed great ease at interacting with people and making sure I could be able to tell a story, rather than simply taking a photograph.
The fishing village at sunrise
One day we had an unbelievable experience at a fishing village at a wonderful location at sunrise.
The big boats loaded with fish caught from the night were at a distance, faded and stationary like a piece of art – the perfect background.
Imagine rough sea and Vietnamese fisherman rowing in walnut shaped boats ferrying the abundant catch ashore.
Made from bamboo, these boats became popular during the French rule. The French had levied aggressive taxes on boat ownership, so the Vietnamese designed the “Thung Chai” which would more look like a basket than a boat, and thus could not be taxed. These boats stayed the same until today.
But back to our sunrise scene. Whilst the man where fiercely rowing, women would stand still ashore.
The scene was slow and relaxed, in preparation for the boats to reach the beach.
Once this happened, the whole scene switched into high speed: boxes full of catch would be unloaded and sold at improvised auctions to the many woman traders – the goods would eventually reach the markets, local restaurants and street food stalls.
Finally, the small basket boats would go back to get the next load. And the scene would repeat again. Many times.
Once all the fish had been downloaded, the selling scene would stop and everybody would start cleaning their fish, sort it and finally load it onto the typical bamboo baskets balanced on the shoulder pole.
And Etienne was there with me, pushing my limits and directing me to the best spots.
Thanks Etienne for sharing this amazing place with me – I consider this experience one of the highlights of my trip.
3 important tips about photography in Vietnam
Go off the beaten track
Unfortunately, the days of Vietnam being an unchartered country are gone: with more than 15 million international visitors per year there’s hardly a non-explored place anymore.
To capture images that stand out you need to seek out new places.
The places I have visited have proven to be extremely safe and people are curious of you and friendly, so there is nothing wrong in exploring around.
If you rely on the suggestions of a local even better: he may show how proud he is of his country and share the secret places with you.
Joining a photography tour can help immensely, as it was my case with Etienne Bossot from Hoi An Photo Tours.
In Vietnam, generally speaking, the locals have been remarkably friendly to being photographed.
Approach them with a smile, and when you do not know the language show interest in what people do: take pictures when they are busy working for example.
This removes a lot of pressure from them and as they think they are not the focus of the scene anymore, they will eventually blend and appear naturally spontaneous in the final outcome.
Some people may say “dung chup” – which means “don’t photograph”.
They either may try to get some money off you, but if you hear the words “ngheo qua” – which means “very poor” – they may simply think that the scene you are capturing is a symbol of poverty and they do not want you to share that with others.
They are very proud of their country and culture – they want to show off only the best!
Always be on the lookout and ready for opportunities.
Keep your camera out of its case, switched on and ready to shoot.
Although this may seem a generic rule, rest assured that it is even more valid in a country like Vietnam, where there is a lot of human activity by any road: people cooking and eating food or drinking coffee, conflicting patterns of traffic, or the usual motorbike passing by loaded with pigs, huge amounts of vegetables or even a full water heater.
Where to stay in Hoi An
Hoi An is a beautiful town and there are plenty of accommodation around.
The historical centre is busier with shops and hotels are very limited.
You can read our complete guide to the best places to stay in Hoi An here. There are many areas, each one with the own advantages, in quality, price and location.
You can also watch this video where Stefano of MEL365 introduces the best areas to stay in Hoi An
Ha Noi island is probably the most popular areas for hotels and homestays.
This is where the night market takes place. You are close to the action, still, you are far from the tourist crowd.
The Quynh Chau Homestay is a fantastic accommodation, at an incredible value for money too. It’s also in a quiet street, perfect for a late morning sleep if you are still confused by the jet lag.
Read more about Vietnam
- Ultimate guide to travel photography in Vietnam (with video guide)
- Best 55 Vietnam images [beautiful pictures from a travel experience]
- The complete photo gallery of Vietnam
- Where to stay in Vietnam
- Where to stay in Hoi An (with video of the best areas)
- Where to stay in Hanoi (with video of the best areas)
- A Reference guide to the huge caves of Phong Nha