Ho Chi Minh City, a.k.a. Saigon, offers a great opportunity for urban street photography. The city embraces every tourist with happy and jovial people. Saigon has great landmarks in the center of city like Post Office, Opera House, Cathedral Church, War Memorial, and rural neighborhood like Mekong Delta — it’s a whole package for photography!
Travel possible in budget
If you’re a budget traveler, Saigon won’t disappoint you. Unlike many countries, you’ll manage necessary expenses like food, travel or shopping at very reasonable prices. If you don’t have the art of haggling, learn or you may spend more Vietnamese Dong than expected while shopping. Bargaining is the name of the game in the city.
People are friendly
Vietnamese love engaging with foreigners. They would help you and guide you with the right information. If they don’t know, they would guide you to the person who would know better — but they never confuse you with wrong information. Did I I tell you they love to see themselves photographed? The answer is an astounding yes!
Few English-speaking locals
Saigonese are proud of their own culture and language. They are happy speaking their native language. Gradually, they’ve realized that they need to learn a common language for wholistic growth and to stay in the mainstream. They learn English with great zeal.
Still, not too many locals speak English fluently. You may find it difficult initially to communicate — but don’t worry, it’s not such a big problem either. Ask young people. They’re more likely to speak English proficiently than older generations in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City).
City is safe
Safety is top concern for photographers and visitors, because they carry costly gears. While I was carrying my DSLR on shoulder or holding it in hand, my local office colleagues warmed me that a biker may snatch the camera and ride away.
Cutting short, this post is not a travel guide to Saigon – leading me to share pertinent information which a street photographer asks frequently about the city.
Without much ado, let me share my top eleven tips for shooting great street photos in Saigon.
1. Avoid shooting street vendors
In any country you’ll find street vendors and shopkeepers most amicable for photos. Ho Chi Minh City street vendors are very busy selling their stuffs. They, for some reason — either they’re not doing good business or find photography intimidating — don’t like tourists take their pictures.
First evening I went to Ben Than market. Thought it’s a busy market so I’ll get good local people’s photos. To my surprise and disappointment, everyone said no to me for pictures. I always ask for permission before taking photos. Even if I’m shooting candid, the person would know that I’m taking the picture. Dejected with several rejections, I thought I won’t get many Vietnamese street portraits.
For next morning, I had hired a scooter guide to show me local Saigon streets. This leads to my next top tips for photography in Saigon streets.
2. Hire a local scooter guide in Saigon
Typically, a local guide helps you navigate the city, people, culture, history and trivia. Saigon tour guides go one step further — you can hire a scooter tour guide who not only takes you to the narrow lanes of the city but also very proficient in English and local language.
When I was researching on how to tour the city, scooter tour guide sounded a unique way to explore the city. Initially, I was suspicious — would it be safe, hope this is not a scam, and many more such anxieties. I read reviews on TripAdvisor and other forums, then got assured to go ahead with one of the highly rated organizers.
The guide, Trang, helped me navigate majority of the local areas in two hours and guided me who would be friendly local to take pictures. The tour was worth every penny. In fact, I took another tour with the same guide in my next visit to go areas which I missed in the first visit.
3. Locals are friendly
After I first got several rejections in Ben Than market, I thought my street portrait photography game is over in Vietnam. The tour with Trang (the scooter tour guide!) fueled me with confidence that locals are in general friendly, you just need to spot right people.
Since most of them won’t speak common language “English” a smile and showing the camera to pose would do the trick.
You can ask them to pose or you can capture their candid moments — local Vietnamese won’t mind. Plus, youngsters are willing to engage with foreigners.
Showing them what you shot makes them even happier and you can engage more. I love talking to new people so I never let go of any opportunity where I get to talk to strangers for 5-10 minutes. That’s how I pursue my photojournalism passion!
4. Visit major tourist’s attractions
Apart from city hustle, look for major tourists landmarks in the city. You’ll spot tourists and locals both at one place. Tourists are also part of the city life. Especially in District 1, you’ll spot lots of tourists. My narrative isn’t complete till I make pictures of tourists.
Another reason to go to tourist’s locations is to spot people in traditional wear, Ao-Dai. I spotted many local females in Ao-Dai at Opera House and Post Office. If you’re also looking for portraits in traditional dresses, go to Burning Monk, Opera House and Post Office. The neighborhood of Burning Monk Memorial is surrounded by locals and city parks — offering you good photography sites.
By the way, Opera House shows are also amazing. I got an invite to shoot the artists during their rehearsal… It added a new dimension to my HCMC photography experience.
5. Shoot candid photos
I generally shoot street people with their permission, which makes the photo not so candid. But based on the merit of the situation, I don’t disturb the scene and find the storytelling better with the candid photos.
To avoid any objections by the people whom I shoot, I tell them to proceed with their work and I won’t disturb them shooting. If they don’t allow, I won’t shoot — truly appreciating their privacy concerns.
As a photojournalist, it’s important for you to know that you’ve rights to take pictures of people in public places. Do check the local nuisances on such laws before taking people photos. I prioritize privacy concerns over law.
6. Ask Vietnamese to pose naturally
For posed photos, I’ve seen locals making a “V” sign with their fingers. Generally, it means a smiley sign and the person is happy being photographed. For Vietnam, specifically, I relate it with the first letter of their country’s name or the great victory that they grabbed against foreign invasions.
Initially, I was ok with the V pose. But after 10-15 such photos I found it getting repeated. So I had to ask them not to pose with V. 🙂 Or, I took their candid photos to avoid V pose.
7. Explore rural side of Saigon
The rural side of Vietnam is as vibrant as the city. I had one day leisure — leveraged it to visit Mekong Delta. The Mekong river crosses many cities in Vietnam, I went to one of the most famous in the neighborhood.
Rustic people in Mekong Delta make coconut chocolates, store snake venom for medicines, engage in fishing, cultivate rice and lots of such occupations on the bank of the river. Got an opportunity to taste local food and music, apart from stunning street photos. What aa refreshing experience!
Check at the hotel you’re staying, they’ll guide you with private or group tour. I cracked a good deal on private tour, an American couple also shared the cost with me, which made the tour cost even cheaper.
8. Use basic gears – Camera and Lens
Nikon D750 and 50mm f1.8 lens is all I used in my entire tour. While traveling, don’t burden yourself with heavy gears and accessories. I had kept a wide-angle lens 18-55mm as a back-up. But I didn’t use it at all.
I used tripod only once, when I had to shoot a long exposure photo of the Saigon river with the Saigon tower in the night. This photo was not possible without the tripod. My hotel was very close to the river, so I didn’t have to carry the tripod in any of my trips.
I carried telephoto lens Tamron 70-300mm to Mekong Delta. Thought I would find some subjects at a distant location and the telephoto lens would be handy. Again, no use. Because, I was getting interesting subjects close to me. Even if the subject was far, I could use my feet to go close and take a sharp photo with my 50mm lens.
9. Isolate the subject
Saigon is a busy city. People are hustling. They are eating, talking, relaxing and roaming in the streets. They love to stay in streets than home, I felt.
In such a busy street, isolating subjects become difficult. Stay patient for the right moment to frame the subject with perfect composition.
10. Keep refreshments in your bag
Walking in the streets or a day trip to Mekong Delta exhausts you. Keep your protein bars, water and snacks in your backpack to stay charged for continued shooting.
There are street foods and Vietnamese coffee available at every nook and corners of the city. If you don’t like local street food, the refreshments in your bag is your only savior.
11. Places to go
Every street in Vietnam attracts you for street photography – below ones, in no specific order, will assure you fast results!
- Notredam Cathedral Church
- Post Office
- Opera House
- District 1, Saigon River
- Floating Market
- Flower and fruit market, preferably District 10
- Tien Hau Temple, District 5
- Anywhere – Street barbers
- Anywhere – Street Vendors (caution! They’re not very friendly for photos)
- Burning Monk, District 3
- Chinese Medicine Market
- Motorbike Accessories Market
The list goes on… Visit these places first and then, if you’ve more time, ask your guide to help you explore further.
I took nearly 10,000 pictures in Vietnam in my two trips of one week each. I found nearly 1,000 of them usable — rest of them were either shot on burst mode (hence repeated), or some technical errors, or I simply didn’t like the photos. After rigorous shortlisting, nearly 100 photos are my favourites.
Go for it people… Saigon street photography is a unique experience — you need to see it to believe it!