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Photographing Vietnam

By Quang-Tuan Luong © 2001, 2002

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. I have traveled four times to Vietnam in the past few years, staying for more than a dozen weeks cumulated.


Villager (related to the photographer), Ben Tre Muslem women from Cham minority village, near Chau Doc Sunset on the Mekong river with a traditional paddler, Can Tho Wheels are seldom for single drivers: families on cyclo and motorbike Shared ride. Cyclo, Ho Chi Minh city A variety of tropical fruit for sale Floating market, Can Tho Girl of minority village, near Dalat Boy sitting on water buffalo, near the Perfume Pagoda Temple guardian, Perfume Pagoda Tending to rice field in the mountains Young Flower Hmong women, Bac Ha 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, and 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. In general, the North will be more authentic, but also more reserved, less open and welcoming at first.

You will find in the far North-West mountains the highest concentration of well-preserved hill-tribe (also called "minoriy" or "montagnard" culture), but now, you have to go at least beyond Mai Chau (preferably Son La) in the West or to Bac Ha and Sapa in the North. Things are also changing fast there, and some aspects of montagnard culture (like wearing elaborate traditional dresses to go into the fields) are disappearing quickly. For instance my guidebook said that after Mai Chau, every woman was practically still wearing the traditional dress, but I found them to be in minority. The North-East mountains has as many montagnard people as the North-West, but they appear more "vietnamised" and you will rarely see them wearing their traditional costumes. The Sapa market now is visited by almost as many tourists as local people. The Hmong are still very present there, but the women now try to make a living of tourism. However, the area around it is still one of the richest. The markets around Bac Ha are the most colorful of all I have seen so far, and are still quite authentic, but things are changing fast. The Tam Duong market is also supposed to be very interesting. Be sure to check the schedules, as the most interesting markets are weekly events not held every day. 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.


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 extravagantly baroque Great Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh and the Chinese temples in Cholon, full of incence coils and red colors, 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, the city of Hoi An has the best set of preserved ancient homes in the country. In that area, there are some interesting Cham archeological sites. They are mostly ruined, with tropical vegetation begining to reclaim its territory, while the original art can mostly be seen at the museum in Danang. 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 very 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.


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, in particular between Sapa and Tam Duong.

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, typically between $25 to $50 per day. Besides the type of car, the rate will depend on the actually mileage driven, as well as the duration of the trip, and everything has to be negociated in advance. The driver 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 were not permitted to drive a vehicle in Vietnam until 2002, and you will soon realize that there was a good reason for that. I don't advise you try. 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.


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.


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.

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 if you inquire officially. The official policy is that no unprocessed film can be exported. I tried to see if I couldn't get around the situation by Fedexing the film, but the Fedex agent said indeed that they were prohibited by the government from exporting unprocessed film. In 2002, another photographer tried to send his film Fedex. The agent did not notice him of the regulation, but after he had left the country, he found out that his film was held in Vietnam.

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, and once at the China border without difficulty. Things have been much more easy on tourists recently, and the official regulation is not enforced at the airport. I don't think you should worry if you carry the film with you. Just do not leave the film in your luggage). Someone has reported that unprocessed rolls were removed by airport personnel. In conclusion, you should not try to send out your unprocessed film, but rather hand-carry it with you.

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. For me insistence was enough. There might be older machines hanging around in smaller airports.

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. In 2001, two other Fuji labs were suggested by Hoang Nguyen (both have Frontier Fuji digital stations and handle/sell 120), at 82 Nguyen Hue and 114 bis Nam Ky Khoi Nghia. 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.

Digital photography

Digital cameras in some ways make travel a lot easier since you don't have to carry piles of film with you and worry about heat, humidity, and X-rays. However, there is always a trade-off since digital cameras and storage media (digital wallets and laptops) always need re-charging. Electric current in Vietnam is mostly 220V/50Hz, but there is also 110V/50Hz. Most of the outlets in the South are US-style (flat pins), and in the North most of them are Russian-style (round pins). There is no connection between the shape of the outlet and the voltage. In general all hotels rooms have usable outlets.

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.
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