I have just returned from a seven day photography course in Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi with the ‘magic’ Maciej Dakowicz.
I deliver my own street photography courses around the world but ‘my camera and I’ had never ventured to Vietnam before. To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect. My knowledge of the country was limited to American movies, so I arrived ready to immerse myself in the arms of the city and be guided by Maciej.
Landing at Noi Bai International airport after a twelve hour flight (luckily films and a long sleep and time literally flew by!), the hotel had organised a taxi to take me the forty-five minute drive to the city. On arrival you need to exchange your money into the local currency, I changed £150 and instantly became a multi-millionaire, with 4.8 million Dong in my wallet! Amazingly, at the end of the course, having eaten out, taken taxis, beers, etc on a daily basis, I had manage to spend only 2,273,400, a staggering £70.94!!!
Hanoi is located in the north on the right bank of the Red River. Located in the old quarter, the Tu Linh Legend Hotel, is a modern boutique style hotel, well furnished, comfortable and boasts a good level of service and room facilities. I recommend you request an upgrade to a room at the rear of the building, as Hanoi is a busy noisy city that does not sleep! (http://tulinhpalacehotels.com/tu-linh-legend-hotel)
Maciej is very familiar with the city and knows the streets and areas that will provide the most opportunities for documentary photography, and gave us the chance to explore the ‘real’ Hanoi, off of the tourist routes.
If you considering a photography trip to Hanoi I recommend you take your walking shoes, I walked 118 km during the course, averaging 16.85 km or over 10 miles a day!!!!!! The weather at this time of year was pretty warm and humid, but comfortable to walk around in as long as you remember to keep hydrated. However, when it rains, it RAINS! Seriously, it pours and pours, but always the photographer, it was a great source of images, so I continued photographing what was going on around me! On one occasion as I stood getting suitably drenched a local presented me with a traditional Non La, the conical hat made of palm leaf which is worn by everyone no matter what gender or age, your very own wearable umbrella.
There are many key locations to visit and photograph in and around Hanoi, including temples and museums, the Old Quarter, the many markets and the designer shops of the French Quarter.
Maciej set us off in pairs to explore a particular location each day and some evenings too, so we could get to record the many facets of the city and its people, as they worked, shopped, exercised and relaxed.
One of the oldest temples in the city is in the heart of the Old Quarter. Bach Ma Temple was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To in the eleventh century to honour a white horse that guided him to the site. The current structure dates back to the eighteenth centre, and a shrine dedicated to Confucius was added in 1839. A highlight is the beautiful red-lacquered funeral palanquin.
The most visited temple in Hanoi is the Ngoc Son Temple, ‘Temple of the Jade Mountain’ which is on a small island at the northern end of the Hoan Kiem Lake and is connected by a red wooden bridge. ‘The lake of the restored Sword’ refers to the story of how the Emperor’s heaven sent sword was returned to the divine by a giant golden turtle that took it down deep into the lake. Today the locals gather at 6am on the shores of the lake to do their daily exercise and tai chi.
Majeic got us to look for the ‘unusual in the usual’. Alongside locals and tourist taking ‘selfies’ by the lakeside, I captured a bride posing for her bridal portraits.
The market places are a focus for organised chaos in the city; narrow roads with stalls spilling out onto the streets, women carrying baskets of fruit, eggs and vegetables, look out for the miniature pineapples which are delicious, mopeds make their way through the crowds and stalls to deliver goods, they are a great place to photograph. Ngocho Kham Thien market includes clothing and textiles, fruit and vegetables, as well as live stock. Cho Dong Xuan is the largest market and is good for fabrics and souvenirs. There are flower markets where you’ll find an area for ‘green tree’ bonsais. There is also a small covered antique market with various bric a brac, collectibles and military goods. You’ll also find outdoor barbers given haircuts and wet shaves.
I took several photographs of people trying on designer glasses, the rows and rows of different glasses and reflections in the mirrors. The designer posters also provide interesting backdrops for the young Hanoians as they shop and chat with friends.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex is an important place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese. Consisting of a traffic-free area of botanical gardens, monuments, memorials and pagodas, it is crowded by groups of Vietnamese who come from far and wide to pay their respects to ‘Uncle Ho’. The area is guarded by soldiers in white and green uniforms and you can visit the Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House and the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda.
Founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, the Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius and honours Vietnam’s finest scholars and men of literary accomplishment. The formal tranquil garden with the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’ pond, a pagoda and statues of Confucius and his disciples. It is also the site of Vietnam’s first university, established in 1076, when entrance was only granted to those of noble birth.
We visited the local war museum which is easy to spot by the collection of international weaponry on display outside, which you can walk up and touch. Opposite in the park is an imposing statue of Lenin and adjacent to the museum is one of the famous landmarks of the city, the Hexagonal Flag Tower of Hanoi.
Whilst you’re visiting Hanoi make sure you visit the Trang Tien Ice Cream Shop first opened in 1958, when it sold a mere two types of ‘icecream on a stick’. Post war, and over fifty years later, they now sell icecream in cones, cups and popsicles, made from natural ingredients with flavours including familiar chocolate, and more local favourites of green bean and green rice. My personal recommendation praline and cream, although the green rice combined with coconut milk has a soft and chewy texture and is worth a try, because when in Vietnam… And a word of advice, make sure you are ready with your choice, the staff can get a little grumpy with the more indecisive customer!
Another must see and do is a visit to the appropriately named ‘Beer Street’ in the Old Quarter. Drinking beer has become embedded in the Vietnamese culture, and the country has one of the highest beer consumption rates in the world. Offered as the perfect answer to the hot humid climate, there are many popular local beers worth a try; Hanoi Beer, Saigon Beer, Huda Beer, Bai Hoi, and at around 6000 Dong or 15p a glass, well it would be rude to refuse.
Alongside a cool beer enjoy some local street food, go for a bowl of noodle soup, sticky rice and chicken, but watch out for ‘dog’ on the menu, it wasn’t something I was willing to try. A walk along the 200 meter Ta Hien street, locally known as the ‘international crossroad’, is a hustling mass of street food stalls and draws both locals and visitors alike. In addition it’s a great place to sit and watch the world pass by and of course photograph it!
What out when you cross the road and don’t expect cars to stop for you even on zebra crossings, be brave, keep looking, but you just have to walk across but very slowly, with purpose, and keep moving!
Looking through my portfolio of images some of my favourites are the series of portraits taken from a different perspective, taking a common feature, and using that as a focus for my portraits throughout the week. I managed to capture some amazing characters in these portraits.
Hanoi is a thriving city full of young family’s right through to its older generations with many stories to tell of Hanoi and Vietnam. I love the mix of the old and traditional, like the medicinal spice shops, through to designer brands, labelled jeans worn alongside a traditional Non La, mobile phones in selfie sticks and tai chi. In the park children hang on the climbing frames with their funky rucksacks on the way home from school, and men gather to play a traditional game of xiangqi.
As a source for documentary street photography the opportunities are overwhelming and one visit does not do it justice. It was a fascinating trip and I cannot wait to head back to this incredible city next year.
If you are interested in joining me next year please get in touch