On my last trip to South East Asia, I have decided to organise a video and a guide on Travel Photography in Vietnam
It all started in October last year when I got a call from my old time friend and collaborator, Marco, from London.
“Hey Stef, what do you think about a trip purely for travel photography in Vietnam”.
Silence…..I was already googling the flights 🙂
Marco knows my passion and websitye. It was like proposing a 4 years old to spend an afternoon in a chocolate shop where he can eat everything he wants. Dangerous.
Table of Contents
I mostly travel on my own for photography and I was not sure about having a buddy. But, hey, it turned out to be bloody excellent!
In two days we had our flights booked and our first night sorted out. We both agreed we could arrange the remaining part of our trip on the fly, based on the weather, sites, beauty of the area and other considerations. We both agreed on flexibility.
Preparation to travel photography in Vietnam
I usually like to organise my trip in advance. I am not after the best hotel or the flight. Those come second, or third.
I like to document myself in places where photography could be great.
In this trip, I started with googling about photography in Vietnam. A great place to start documenting yourself is the Wikipedia Page dedicated to photo in Vietnam.
You will find on that page a list of fantastic photographers, from the 19th century to today.
I personally feel that the old photos are a great source of inspiration, sometimes better than Instagram. In social environments, you tend to find always similar photos with similar subjects.
Another good source, in my opinion, is 500px. The website has really a selection of great quality photos.
My personal suggestion is to take inspiration from socials and websites, however, avoid purely copying someone else photos and style.
I then built my own Travel Photography shot list with all the ideas that came to my mind. You can read more about ideas and building a list on my article here.
It was then time to decide the gear to take
Gear for my travel photography in Vietnam
If you follow this blog, you may already know my typical gear. For this trip, I decided to go light, very light
Was it a good decision?
Keep reading, things become interesting now.
I decided to travel only with my Sony A7R II, the FE 4/24-105mm lens and a 35mm to use uniquely for street photography, especially in the cities.
The 24-105mm is definitely a noticeable lens, on the heavy side, however, one of the best all-round I have ever used.
I love the 35mm prime because of the combination of quality and size, super small, you can literally put it in your pocket and forget about.
Marco had also a Sony A7R but the III model.
We personally did not find much of the difference with shooting with one or the other. I had to carry more spare batteries (2 instead of 1), but his batteries were twice as big.
There is however a spec of the latest model that I would have loved to have on mine. The double SD Card slot. I used to have it on my old Nikon and it’s so practical for instantaneous backups. Almost essential.
I decided to leave at home my GoPro with all the attached gear. We did not plan to spend much time in the water. In fact, I did not miss it.
I had also my smartphone, a Samsung S9+. I love taking photos and videos with it. It’s such a quick and easy companion. Sometimes the camera can be quite intimidating.
Marco had a Samsung S10. Also, in this case, it was interesting to see the difference. The wide angle lens on the S10 is definitely outstanding.
I took with me also a gimbal, the Zhiyun Smooth Q. It was for me absolutely a must, especially on the bumpy roads of the north of Vietnam.
Interesting enough, the video stabilization of the Samsung S10 was so amazing that Marco decided to use his gimbal only in rare cases.
Overall, I had 8kg of the bag plus my camera. So easy to move around. And I honestly did not miss more gear.
Drones in Vietnam – Can I use it?
The easy answer is Yes.
But it’s very complicated.
First, you need to ask for a special permit to fly drones in Vietnam (email firstname.lastname@example.org at Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam).
Once you have it, you need to provide all the paths you are going to fly. If approved, then you are free to fly your drone but only where you declare it. No other areas.
This is the official process, at least based on my finding. Of course, it can all change without notice.
In the Da Nang airport, they do check if you have a drone without a permit. And they will confiscate it if they find one.
You can pick it up from Da Nang once you leave the country.
I met a guy with a drone. He flew it on Ha Long Bay as well as other spectacular areas. He took his drone in through the Hanoi airport. He suggested separating the battery from the drone. It would not be as visible in that case.
He had some amazing videos and photos. He obviously took some serious risks. And jail could have been one of the outcomes, besides an expensive ticket.
I would personally suggest following the official way, or leave it at home, as I did 🙂
A video about Travel Photography in Vietnam
I have also organised a full video about Travel Photography in Vietnam with tips and suggestions.
You will see more of my technique, besides a few tricks. Enjoy
Taking photos in Vietnam
And here is the best part, the real trip.
The travel photography in Vietnam experience started at 10pm in Hoi An. That is when our flight landed in Da Nang and we transferred to this used-to-be fishing village.
We planned to spend our first full day in Vietnam with Etienne Bossot, of Hoi An Photo Tours.
I love early starts, and Etienne does as well I guess because we met at 4:30am for a sunrise photography workshop at a fishing village, 1 hour south of Hoi An.
I prefer to leave this location without a name or GPS coordinates.
Because of the authenticity of the place, with people that invite you to their own home, rare in these days, also in Vietnam.
Etienne has been running photography workshops in Vietnam and Asia for the last 10 years. He knows certainly what he is talking about and he knows where interesting things are going to happen, where is the action.
He drove us to this amazing beach where the boats usually take the fish of the night. There is no pier, so they have to anchor a few hundred meters from the beach and the fishermen would have to come onshore with tiny, unstable, spheric boats.
I used lots of “would” just because that morning the sea condition was very challenging, with 1-2 meter waves. Perfect for surfing, but impossible to deal with in that tiny boats.
What a great way to start a photography trip. Lots of action, drama, chaotic situations, people screaming, going back and forward, ladies sorting the fish, all you can imagine. And in the meantime, the sun was rising.
And we were there documenting this amazing place and unusual day, even for the locals.
Did we have any problem with making photos of people? Did anyone ask money or asked us to leave?
I guess because of a few reasons:
- Etienne is well known in the local community. They know him and his kind heart. He talks Vietnamese and locals do love to chat, especially with foreigners.
- The locals were too busy with everything that nobody really cared about us
- And I guess it’s rare to see tourists in this part of Vietnam, which made us very exotic
And once the beach action was over, it was time for a local coffee, more photos of the village, the houses and a couple of boatyards.
There are still authentic places to take photos in Vietnam
The first day of photography gave me straight away the energy to continue the trip on a similar pattern.
And this is my most important tip from this trip.
Try to visit places off the radar, where tourism has still to arrive on mass.
And there are many of them, like the fishing village.
Sapa is, for example, a famous place to visit. But the level of mass tourism has reached such a peak that many locals ask you money otherwise no photo, they even know how to pose.
This is not to say you should avoid Sapa, and if paying to make an amazing photo is right for you, if staging a great shot is alright, then you will find plenty of possibilities in Sapa as well as other parts of Vietnam, or the world.
I personally think that staging is more commercial than travel photography. That may be just me.
But, if you stay 20-30Km outside Sapa then you will be suddenly in a more authentic place.
Go to Ha Giang and you will share an incredible province with only hundreds of other travellers on scooters, instead of sharing a square in a town with thousands.
Complaining because a few places are overcrowded with tourists does not help. Just move on and find new spots.
Sometime I may fail because there is nothing interesting, sometime it will be amazing and unique. We did not learn to walk without falling 😉
I still remember Marco’s, and mine, gaze when we found that amazing village up in the North, close to China, with the main unsealed street full of Vietnamese flags and a suspension bridge right at the bottom of it. What an amazing photographic and video “mine”.
How can you find these still authentic places?
Sometimes giving a try, other times taking a local photo tour like the Hoi An Photo Tour of Etienne, which I would highly suggest to anyone visiting Hoi An and the central region of Vietnam.
Landscape photography in Vietnam, scenery images
One thing I came to realize in Vietnam is that my photos couldn’t do justice to the amazing scenery I had in front of me.
The highlight of my trip was most definitely the Ha Giang Province, up in the north, bordering China.
True, it is hard to get there. It’s a long bus trip, 6-8 hours from Hanoi. Then you need to rent a motorbike for 4 days and tour around the never-ending valleys and mountain chains.
But, I promise you, every corner is a surprise, because of the landscape, the scenery and the people, mostly still dressed in the traditional way.
Locals always try their best to talk to you. And Google Translator was my biggest helper.
My tip here is to limit or avoid stopping just to make a photo of locals, even to the best kid or traditional person. Try instead to have a simple talk with a few words.
I always take with me small koalas with Australia written on the front that I gift around.
Besides being a nice memory for the locals, I believe, it is also a good way to start a connection. Only after a few minutes, I would ask to make a photo. I very rarely get no as an answer.
Here are some of my Vietnamese scenery images, more to come in a special gallery
You can see in this video how to plan your trip to Ha Giang, maps and a possible budget for that (so tiny I could not believe it myself)
Street Photography in Vietnam
Let me say straight away that Hanoi is one of the best city in the world for street photography. You walk around and you find so many interesting things happening.
I could not believe my eyes when I visited a place where the train goes so close to the apartments blocks that you may think it’s going to touch them.
There are streets with only butchers, only metal workers, or ladders and I could go on and on.
There are tiny alleys everywhere.
I loved also to take some long exposure of the traffic, mostly in daylight with ISO 50, Aperture 20-22, and a long shutter time for a correct exposure (usually 1/2 or 1/4 sec). Handheld using a street pole. Another great thing about the Sony A7R is, in fact, the stabilization.
In Hoi An I had a great early session in the local market (and, really, you can have it in any town in Vietnam). Between 5:30am and 7:30am the market was a great buzzing happening of locals exchanging and buying any kind of stuff.
The meat market is all in a shiny red colour meanwhile the fish section has an almost silver colour made of many shades. They are usually in low light, and high ISO is required. Again my A7R delivered big time, even at ISO 6400.
Go to the fruit and veggie area for a wide multitude of colours.
One thing I learnt from Etienne on the very first day is how the Non La (the typical conical Vietnamese hat) works almost like a light reflector. As I said, he knows his stuff 🙂
I exposed for them and I had some nice results. Basically, I exposed for the highlights.
This is something you can do in three ways:
- manual setting
- use the exposure compensation, if you work in Aperture or Shutter Priority
- lock the Exposure (AEL button) on the sky above you (not on the sunny side otherwise you underexpose too much)
The third way was suggested to me by Etienne and admittedly, it worked so much better and quicker when I was outdoor.
Hoi An is quite a touristic town, especially between 4pm and 9pm. It becomes so busy, almost unbelievably busy. Visitors arrive in thousands, with buses from the Da Nang big hotel complex area.
This is another great opportunity for street photography, trying to layer tourists, underexposing and testing other techniques.
This is a small set of photos. A full gallery will be posted soon.
If you are planning to visit Hanoi I suggest you check out my video about the best areas to stay.
Most beautiful places in Vietnam for photography
This was not my first trip to Vietnam, and it will not be the last one.
I previously visited Ho Chi Minh City (usually known as Saigon) but it did not impress me that much for photography. I visited most of the cost and the centre. On this trip, I concentrated on the centre and the north.
My preference for the coast is around Hoi An (I have been already twice there).
The town is beautiful at sunrise and in the night, after 10pm. During the day, it is a bit too busy for travel photography but it may be good for street.
Around Hoi An, there are some great places, fishing villages, rice fields. Impossible to get bored.
Hanoi is a must for street photography (which I personally consider it as part of travel photography anyway).
The Ha Giang Province and the north has some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen in my life. Absolutely amazing. It’s a difficult place to reach and you need that adventure bug to try new experiences.
There is one drawback for photography in the Ha Giang Province. It’s hard to find a spot on the road where there are no power cables between you and the amazing landscape. If you want a clean shot you need to walk down. Unfortunately, sometimes it is not possible, way too steep.
I still have to do Ha Long Bay. I was said so many good things…and bad too, again very touristic. My feeling, based on the many photos I have seen is that you do really need a drone and possibly 5 or more days to reach that off the beaten path islands.
We planned to stop in Ninh Binh on this trip, however, it was raining when we arrived there with the train and renting a scooter in that conditions was too dangerous. The trip evolved in another direction and we did not go back. Another time. It is supposed to be also very very nice.
And my list could go on and on. Vietnam is such a beautiful country.
So, how did it go?
I had my first trip to Vietnam in 2002. Such a beautiful country, so photogenic.
Things have changed and few destinations have become really busy.
In saying that, even on this trip, I found a few amazing places with a minimal impact of tourism.
Be adventurous and you will find always a new route, a new amazing valley, a new traditional village.
This is probably the photo that I like the most from my last trip. I find there is a great mix of creativity, finding the right moment, and using a few technical skills too. It was not an easy one. Let me know how you like it 😉
Try to always approach the locals, not just taking photos of them. Photography should only come after a talk, which can be just smiling and laughing.
And remember, you can spot a photo made with a zoom (perspective is squeezed). Try to get close to your subject, to the people, with a 50mm or a 35m or even lower. Photos look so much better.
One note about the Sony A7R III and the GPS localization. Marco was using it on his camera with the new firmware and app.
Sony, you can do better!
It’s a pain and it’s a real battery killer for both the mobile and the camera. I would personally say it is unusable. Marco’s camera battery was lasting less than mine (it should last double as much)
Leave your comment or question below. It is always great to talk about a common passion.
Have a great trip to Vietnam and happy photography!!
Read more about Vietnam
- Two days of photography in Hoi An [what and where]
- 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