I’m calling it: Vietnam is one of my favourite countries to photograph in the world. You’ll be blown away by landscapes like the karst formations of Ninh Binh and Ha Long Bay at sunset or the staggered mountain fields of Sa Pa. If you’ve never been, you’re in for a treat – it will unlikely be your last trip. The photography opportunities are incredible, and the food is far too good!
Permits and logistics
You’ll need a permit for filming or using a drone, so make sure you plan ahead. Photography and video laws are always subject to change, so check the most up-to-date information with official sources before you go.
Make sure you also check your visa requirements as many countries require visas to visit Vietnam (including Australia).
Getting around the country takes time on bus, boat, taxi, train or foot, so allow enough time to get to your locations. Or turn the journey into part of your photographic story.
What to shoot
The icons: conical hats (nón lá) and rice paddies
No doubt you’ve seen photos of people in conical hats and rice paddies. By all means, take these images as they’re classic icons of the country. But ask yourself: what can I do with them that’s new?
Moving beyond the icons, keep an eye out for the colours of Vietnam – brightly painted buildings, textured walls and markets. Vietnam is a wonderful country for street photography with the neon lights of Ho Chi Minh City or the old quarter of Hanoi, where each street sells a different product.
Street food and Markets
Street food such as steaming bowls of pho, banh mi and dumplings make for rich and delicious photos (just remember to photograph them before you eat them). Food markets can be confronting as there are often graphic animal meats for sale, but they’re worth visiting for the colour and brightness of the fruit and veg section.
You’ll want long exposures to capture the speed and traffic of the cities! Try slow shutter pans along traffic to get the movement.
Outside of the cities, Vietnam has some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever photographed. You’ll never forget the karst formations of Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh, the mountainous regions of Sa Pa and the world’s largest caves in central Vietnam. Further down, there’s the Mekong Delta and the coastal regions. Do your research before you go to line up the best vantage points.
The weather can be dramatic in Vietnam especially in wet or flood seasons. Be mindful of these changes and pack a light rain coat and waterproof camera bag. However, on the flip side, these changes in weather can make for incredible sunsets.
When it’s not sunny, it’s often hazy with a lot of contrast between sky and land, so make sure you pack graduated ND filters. Polarizing filters are also useful for getting glare off reflective surfaces such as water.
With the humidity, you’ll need to be mindful of your camera moving from air-conditioned locations to humid locations. Keep a lens cloth handy to clean any fog off the lens.
General photography tips for Vietnam
Get up to high locations
Whether it’s a rooftop bar in Hanoi or hiking to the top of a mountain temple, your best views will be from high vantage points.
It goes without saying, but ask permission before taking someone’s portrait. You’ll get a much better photo. I’ve found Vietnamese people happy to have their photo taken. Take some photo consent forms in Vietnamese. Bring small notes for tipping people after you’ve taken their photo, although chances are they’ll want to give you something in return (especially street food vendors)! Regardless of if you have a consent form or not, if you can, ask their name and write it down for your records.
Vietnam is prone to flooding and rising water in rain, as well as unstable footpaths and fast-moving traffic in cities. Keep your safety as a top priority.
So they’re my top tips for photographing Vietnam, a country I’m sure I’ll go back to again. Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? I’d love to hear from you and I’m more than happy to answer your questions in the comments section below.