Verdant padi fields, thick lush rainforests and deep bays dotted with the crumbling peaks of limestone islands – these are the images of Vietnam most people see on television and movies screens, but there is so much more to see, to do and experience in this dynamic, complex and vibrant country.
Photographing in Vietnam
Taking photographs while you’re on holiday is a great pastime. For most people, it’s just a way of recording some of the best moments or scenes from a vacation of a lifetime. For others, it’s a more serious business, with photography seen as an art form, a historical record or even a way of making a living.
This is particularly true of Vietnam, where its rich indigenous culture, beautiful kaleidoscopic landscape and turbulent recent history have combined to create a scenic, deeply complex paradise, drawing vacationers, curious students, veterans and travel photographers from all around the globe. Whatever the motivation however, one thing that most visitors have to contend with are the unique conditions that apply to photographing in Vietnam.
The tropical climate of Vietnam creates a number of interesting challenges to the vacation photographer. Heat, humidity, rainstorms, dust, X-rays, uncertain electricity supply and questionable processing facilities can dramatically affect the way your photographs come out. These factors may make shooting particularly troublesome if you’re a novice photographer shooting in the tropics for the first time, but even veteran cameramen can run into unpleasant surprises. In general however, there are three areas in which taking pictures in Vietnam might pose a challenge: having the right equipment, the process of taking pictures and getting the pictures out of the country.
Problems with photography equipment
When it comes to deciding what equipment to bring, it basically depends on personal preference. Advise on camera model, film brand, tripods and bags — the possibilities are endless and quite often what will work for one photographer will not for another. The best way to overcome these difficulties is to research — there are plenty of photography guides available in bookstores and on the Internet. Vacationers just returning from the country are also a good source of information; after all they’ve already made most of the mistakes.
For photographers using film, there are two main areas of concern. The first is the buying film; if possible, you should probably bring the rolls yourself. In Vietnam, the number of places selling film rolls is very small; you’d find a handful of film shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh and it would take a miracle to find a shop selling decent film outside the major cities. Also, there’s not guarantee that the shop stock is recent or has been stored properly, and highly unlikely that they offer slide film or black and white film, so if you’re particularly worried about film quality or think you need special film, its best to bring it with you.
Another area of concern is processing. Vietnamese law still technically forbids taking any unprocessed film out of the country: the rolls are supposed to either be processed in country or risk confiscation. This includes attempts to Fed-Ex out the rolls, as apparently, Fed Ex also refuses to process any parcels containing unprocessed rolls. Unfortunately, there are still only a few film development labs in the country, and the quality of processing in Vietnam is not always consistent with the standards most take for granted in the West. The best bet for a desperate, about-to-fly-out-of-the-country traveller is to ask at the better hotels for some recommended film shops.
Once the films are processed however, they can still be subject to examination. Sometimes the authorities will confiscate prints of ‘sensitive’ subjects, but this a far better alternative than losing the entire roll, or being detained under suspicion of being a saboteur. Nowadays, with the growing influx of tourists, most of whom haven’t heard of this regulation and can’t take a photograph worth beans anyway, the authorities have become more lenient and rarely enforce the rule, but bear in mind that the regulation is still technically in force.
With digital cameras, there’s less hassle involved — no worrying about films, heat, humidity, etc, etc — but the constant need to recharge the camera can also be troublesome. Electric current in Vietnam is mostly 220V/50Hz, but there is also 110V/50Hz. Most of the outlets in the South use flat pins in the US-style while those in the North use round pins in the Russian style. In general, all hotels rooms have usable outlets, but if you’re staying in cheap accommodations, finding a usable outlet may be a problem.
Snapping that photograph
Once you’ve leapt past the equipment hurdle, the actual process of photographing becomes an interesting adventure. In the major cities, it is fairly simple: just walk around and click. If you’re on a tour, that would be ride around on a bus and click. More serious photographers may want to avoid the tours: they tend to pack a lot of places in a very short time, making it difficult to properly focus on getting the shots you want. Also, if you’re on a tour bus all the time, you miss the chance to capture many great scenic opportunities lurking just outside your window — and its pretty difficult trying to get a shot through a window on a bouncing bus.
The best way to go about photographing Vietnam is to go solo, or with a buddy who understands your camera fixation. Walking is of course the most thorough way to go, though you can also hire a cyclo (with driver) for the day and shoot in comfort. Most photographers will also hire a private car (preferably, after getting the hotel staff to recommend a company) to make their way around the larger cities and to move from one village to another.
The private car usually comes with a driver, which is a blessing. Until 2002, foreigners were not allowed to drive in Vietnam, and judging by the barely organized chaos that passes for road traffic today, there was a very good reason for the restriction. Pedestrians, animals, bicycles, trucks and motorcycles all weave recklessly along the streets, and right of way belongs to whoever has the bigger vehicle, or the strongest nerves. In this situation, it would be best to leave the driving to the driver, try to ignore the near collisions and focus on taking pictures. It would also be a good idea to take a short ride with your prospective driver before committing to hiring him, not only to check if you’re comfortable with his driving and company, but to see if you can communicate with him and if he’s willing to act as a guide as well as a driver — in which case, he would be an invaluable companion.
Challenges to a photographer’s skill
Photographing in Vietnam is a delight, but also a challenge. For people more used to photographing in the temperate climates, the additional light from the tropical sun may seem a blessing at first. The strong sunlight is misleading however – even the most ardent photographer can’t stand to be in the heat and glare for long and ends up taking refuge in the cool and shade, together with the wiser locals! The strong sun not only tests the photographer’s endurance, but skills, for it washes out colours and atmosphere. The best time to take pictures will often turn out to be in the dusk and dawn hours, when the amount of light is significantly reduced.
When it comes to subjects, the obvious cautions apply: no country is particularly pleased to find foreigners taking pictures of their military installations or sensitive areas and that is certainly the case in Vietnam. Apart from that, there’s plenty to shoot. The scenery is superb, with its vibrant green padi fields, misty mountains and the endless coastline. There are temple galore, historic mansions and statues aplenty for those who like that sort of thing.
The most popular and fascinating subject, however, is the people, especially as the tourist influx and increasing contact with the West hasn’t yet managed to wrench the majority of the people from their traditional way of life. The Vietnamese are pleasantly obliging when it comes to posing for photographs, especially in the more remote areas, where they rarely see tourists.
There are supposedly regional differences: in the south, the people are said to be less reserved and more open and smiling; in the North, the people are less so. Having said that, there’s a very high chance that – North or South – you can get a local to stop a few minutes and smile for the camera. The main thing is to treat the locals like people and not scenery. A few minutes of conversation and a polite request is often enough to establish a connection and a willing participant. If you don’t happen to have a local guide with you, even a few gestures and a smile can convey the message. The children are especially happy to pose and sometimes may even be difficult to keep out of the frame!
Articles About Vietnam