Inside Hanoi: 10 Tips for Photographers

December 06, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

After spending the past week in Hanoi, Vietnam - walking the streets, smelling the smells, sampling the local fare, and taking arguably too many photos, I've developed a keen sense what this old and culturally rich city consists of.

Hanoi is a city unlike any other I've ever visited. Locals conduct many of their daily routines on the sidewalks - from eating to haircuts to markets right down to using the bathroom. There is a constant life and motion to the city - largely attributable to the millions of motorbikes constantly whizzing in every direction according traffic code that exists as common courtesy rather than formal law - that breathes life into its residents. If you don't look where you walk you may trip over someone sitting in a tiny plastic chair eating a bowl of pho - or clipped by a passing motorbike. A couple of days of acclimation and you'll begin to understand what makes the place tick.

The intent of this write-up, though, is to offer insider advice on how to approach Hanoi photographically to help you better capture the essence of the city. If you'd rather skip straight to the photos I've taken in Hanoi, check out my gallery here.

But before we get into my spiel, I'll offer one piece of universally applicable advice: do your research in advance, but don't feel tied to your findings once you arrive; trust your instincts, don't be afraid to get lost, and go where your lens leads you!

Now that we've got that out of the way, I invite you to spin through my top 10 tips on taking travel photos in Hanoi:

  1. Bring a camera you don’t mind carrying on a strap for the whole day. The best camera is the one you have with you – ready to shoot for unplanned opportunities. Lugging around a heavy camera kit can get exhausting or require elaborate bags/cases that make it a chore both to carry and to ready for capture.

Travel tip: In my experience camera theft isn’t common in Hanoi, but it certainly isn’t unheard of either. Keep your camera on a strap and stay aware of your surroundings. Try to avoid flashy straps with camera brands printed on them in bold colors, and if carrying a bag opt for one that doesn’t scream ‘I have thousands of dollars of camera equipment in here’. I personally use a Timbuktu messenger bag with a padded soft case inside for easy access and to maintain a low profile.

 

  1. Opt to walk rather than cab if you can spare the time. Many of your best photo opportunities in Hanoi will be develop spontaneously in the bustling and colorful streets, not at the tourist hotspots. Take a walk through the streets – smell the smells, get a feel for how the locals live, and the photo opportunities will come to you.

Travel tip: Cabs are unavoidable at times, and Vietnamese cabbies are privy to the fact that your pockets are likely fatter than theirs. It’s prudent to lock in a rate or agree upon a fare to your destination at the outset of your ride to avoid surprises due to rigged meters or scams.

 

  1. See in color. The streets of Hanoi are teeming with life and filled with color. Keep an eye out for interesting color combinations and how the colors interact/intersect within your compositions; complimentary colors always make for a nice pop.


  2. Capture the motion of the city. You’ll find out the first time you go to cross the street that Hanoi is a fast-paced city – and whizzing with motorbikes. Look for contrast between stationary and moving objects (storefronts and motorbikes are a great example) then lower your shutter speed to around 1/40 of a second (could be faster or slower, depending on your focal length), brace yourself against a stable object, frame your shot, and wait for the scene to unfold as you keep the camera stable while firing the shutter as motion occurs. The resulting photo evokes the speed and motion with which the city moves.

Travel tip: Modern image stabilization technologies make this technique much easier to pull off without a tripod. Invest in a stabilized camera body or lens if you can.

 

  1. Visit the Old Quarter at night. Shops, restaurants, and bars adorn the streets of this area heavily trafficked by backpackers and tourists. The streets in the Old Quarter are well lit and full of life and color, making for excellent photo opportunities. Hundreds of yellow lanterns hang over Pho Dao Duy Tu, making for excellent blue hour photos (back to complimentary colors), and on the weekends you’ll also find the night market on Hang Dao Street.


  2. Bring a prime lens. Not only are primes smaller and lighter, but they typically have better light gathering capabilities than their zoom counterparts. Many days in Hanoi are overcast, and low light scenes are common – making a fast prime desirable. Additionally, shooting with a low f-stop creates separation between the subject and their surroundings, making for better portrait opportunities and adding that professional look to your photos.

Travel tip: Personally, I prefer the 35mm focal length for street photography, although many swear by the tried and true 50mm.

 

  1. Explore outside the tourist hubs. It’s tempting to stick to the main tourist attractions – both out of comfort and desire to see and photograph the scenes we’ve heard so much about. There’s nothing wrong with visiting these places, but the odds of walking away with unique photos is much lower than if you get off the beaten path. Ask locals for advice or just hit the street walking without a set plan, allowing your eyes to lead you toward what you find interesting.

Travel tip: Walk across the Cau Long Bien bridge to get an elevated view of the city as it quickly transitions from dense urban grid to farmland as you approach the Red River.

 

  1. Early to bed, early to rise. Hanoi is up and moving long before the sun rises, and an unofficial midnight curfew tames the city down fairly early. Wake up before the sun, grab some coffee, and watch the city come to life. If you’re lucky you may even catch a sunrise.

Travel tip: Hoan Kiem Lake is a popular morning exercise spot. You’ll find plenty of commotion around the lake in the early mornings, and there’s an unofficial market that operates in the mornings on Pho Bao Khanh. Also be sure to check out the Quang Ba flower market, which operates from 3-7AM every day except Sunday. You’ll see flower vendors all over the city, and this is where they supply each morning.

 

  1. Visit the local food markets. Even if you don’t intend to buy or eat anything, your camera will have a feast. Merchants operate booths that specialize in anything from chilis to fruits to meat to dried mushrooms. Far and away different from a western grocery store, these markets are loud, colorful, and full of interesting sights.

Travel tip: Pho Nguyen Thien Thuat, just north of the Old Quarter, hosts an outstanding local market with a wide variety of goods.

 

  1. Ask before you shoot. Many people do not like strangers pointing their cameras at them, and this is no different in Hanoi. If you’re hoping to capture a portrait of someone facing toward you, ask before you raise your camera. Sure this can ruin the candid appeal, but at least you won’t capture an image of a scowling stranger.

Travel tip: Try to connect with people before asking to take their picture, and the outcome will be much better. Offer them a compliment, make a purchase from them, or simply ask for directions to open communications and become more than a stranger with a camera.

 

This list is by no means exhaustive; Hanoi is a large, intricate city with much more to it than most travelers have time to experience.

These 10 tips are a great starting place, and now it's up to you to get out there, throw the camera over your shoulder, and discover it for yourself!

See a brief selection of the photos I captured in Hanoi in the slideshow below - hover over the slideshow and click the top corner to view as a gallery.

If you have additional input or questions, feel free to chime in below in the comments section.

 


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