Vietnam by Julian Li

During Dec 2005, I visited a cold and grey Vietnam with my good friend (and part-time camera bodyguard) Rus.

Night Shopping
1/80 sec      f/ 4.5    iso 1250      16mm
9.30pm... These ladies had just come out of a shop selling warm clothing, which at the time didnt seem like that bad of an idea as it was FREEZING. I had just arrived at my hotel 1 hour ago, and still in shock at the cold weather.

bath towel
1/50 sec      f/3.5    iso 1250      16mm
In this photo, I have a hotel bath towel around my neck, which was used as an emergency scarf. The hat, undersized jacket and white office shirt were all borrowed from the generous hotel owner. Im waiting in this shop to get my money changed from US Dollars (prefered currency) to Vietnam Dong (used to buy cheap food from street stalls)

dead and alive
1/125 sec      f5.6    iso 1250      24mm
8.20 am, the morning after we arrived, I got this shot as I stepped out of my hotel. I try to always have my camera out and ready to shoot no matter what time of the day it is. This is just a typical daily view in hanoi, people going about their normal business, motorcycles whizzing past, and tourists on the prowl.

1/400 sec      f/10    iso 1000     110mm


I was lucky to capture their facial and body expressions like this.

Halong Bay
1/1000 sec      f/11    iso 500     300 mm
I took a short organised trip to the UNESCO world heritage site called Halong Bay, its about 100km east of Hanoi, and we were to travel to and stay at a small island in Halong Bay called Cat Ba island as well as visit some caves. Cost was about $30 USD if I remember correctly.

1/640 sec      f/13    iso 1600     35 mm

cracked hands

The tell tale signs of wear & tear.... a result of a hard life working on the boats.

A cave for tourists
1/10 sec      f/2.8    iso 1600     16 mm
This photo is here just as a record to show that.....yes!!....I did visit the dark staligmite caves near Cat Ba island. I dont find caves interesting, and the presence of passing tourists combined with the low light really killed my enthusiasm in attempting to get any kind of good photograph out of it. Apparently this 200 metre deep cave was discovered by the French 100 years ago now its got man made stone paths and electric lights, a bit too commercialised for me.

1/320 sec      f/9    iso 1600     115 mm
I briefly observed this girl who was standing on a boat talking to this guy who was sitting on a pier, I just loved the way she kept glancing up at him and fiddling with her scarf. Both of them didnt notice me at all.

1/200 sec      f/1.4    iso 1600     50 mm
This shows football is the universal game, it was about 7.30pm and these kids (some of whom played in bare feet) were playing in the central square on Cat Ba island. It was quite a strange situation, it was very cold and here I was literally walking onto their (stone) pitch and taking photos with them running around trying to not smash into me.

1/200 sec      f/1.4    iso 1600     50 mm

1/15 sec      f/2.8    iso 1600    16 mm
I think they were trying to tell me the most people that they have ever had on a bicycle at one time, note that the driver here was using no hands :-)

1/160 sec      f/ 1.4     iso 1600     50 mm


These three playful girls were laughing and joking with each other as they watched the boys play football.

technical note - the light was really low here and thankfully I had my fast 50mm f1.4 lens handy to get me a shutter speed of 1/160 sec, I think any slower shutter speed and these girls would have appeared blurry.


photo courtesy of Rus

1/400 sec      f/ 1.4     iso 400     50 mm

Supply boats

Our boat departed Cat Ba island at 8am, other ships carrying supplies were also going about their morning routine.

1/6400 sec      f/ 1.4     iso 400     50 mm


Ive no idea what those floating huts in the background are for, I think people might actually live in them. The overcast sky during this whole holiday was making it difficult for me to get some nice colourful landscape shots.

1/160 sec      f/ 6.3    iso 400     22 mm
The journey back from Cat ba to the Halong mainland was 3 hours long and was just a stunning 360 degree panorama all the way, it was just so stark and beautiful, and its no wonder there are so many tourists that come.

1/200 sec      f/6.3    iso 400     16 mm

mantis shrimp

During our journey back to the Halong Bay mainland, our ship was approached by a small fishing boat and this fisherwoman was selling crabs and shrimp probably caught the same day. Shortly after buying this from her (50,000 Vietnam Dong), the chef of the ship took our live catch and cooked it for us. Mantis shrimp, so-called as it really looks like a praying mantis has a very sweet and juicy flesh, but it is very hard to unpeel, not like a typical easy king prawn.

destined for fishing
1/160 sec      f/6.3    iso 400     170 mm
I couldn't help but think what was ahead for this young boy standing next to his dad as both were watching mom trying to sell us mantis shrimp.

1/250 sec      f/6.3    iso 400     300 mm


Took this shot of a motorcyclist as I was standing at the side of a road watching the traffic go by. His face looks dirty from the accumlated dust during long rides.

1/200 sec      f/ 6.3    iso 400     300 mm

shoulder the burden
1/400 sec      f/6.3    iso 400     150 mm

why peddle?
1/800 sec      f/6.3    iso 400     70 mm
Here the passenger on the scooter is pulling the cyclist along. Theres no end to the lengths people will go to save energy.I shot this in a Minibus that was going much faster than these three people, thus the reason it looks blurred even though it was taken at a fast shutter speed of 1/800 sec.

you lookin at me?
1/200 sec      f/ 6.3     iso 400     70 mm
This woman was standing guard at a railway crossing of which the main road from Hanoi to Halong Bay runs through. Pure luck I was able to frame it with myself in the shot.


this was a factory store that sold handmade cloths with pictures on them, it looks like a very long labourious job

1/250 sec      f/ 2.8     iso 12500     16 mm
This granny couldn't care less about the busy traffic when crossing the road, knitting is more important....

1/25 sec      f/2.8    iso 1250     16 mm
Once you get over the initial shock factor and examine the wonders what she has done with ears, and thats when attention turns to the sausages, which would make these the least appealing sausages on the face of the earth (atleast to me)...oh wait its not all that bad, they could be stuffed intestines instead :-)
The woman was actually waving her hands at me to not take photos as its apparently illegal to sell dogmeat in the open market, vietnamese are only legally allowed to eat it in restarants, Im told its very tasty and quite expensive.

shopping with mum
1/125 sec      f/2.8    iso 1250     16 mm
....And right after the shock after seeing two dead dogs with missing ears I bump into this kid, curiously looking at me with with doggie ear muffs.....surreal.....

1/3 sec      f/ 22    iso 1250     16 mm
I always felt very nervous when crossing roads in Hanoi. Like every normal person my instinct when I hear the beeping of a horn is to stop. In Hanoi if you hear a horn you just keep on walking. Towards the end of the trip I had almost gotten used to it. This is a hand held shot, I didnt bother bringing my tripod as it slows me down.

the mask
1/2 sec      f/ 16     iso 500     32 mm
Due to the high concentration of motorised transport, there is extreme pollution in Hanoi and I had developed a very bad throat infection on my last day. It was so bad that I even resorted to buying a mask like this boy, which helped slightly.

Hoan Kiem lake
1/13 sec      f/ 5    iso 800     150 mm
This red bridge is called Huc Bridge, and according to locals there are a few giant turtles (claimed to be hundreds of years old) living in this freshwater lake. From what i saw, the lake looked pretty polluted which does not bode well for their future, if they are indeed still alive.

walking home
1/25 sec      f/ 5.6     iso 1600     195 mm
Was lucky to be able to capture this telephoto shot in such low light, its made possible because the lens I have (Canon 70-300mm DO IS ) has image stabilisation which means I can still get fairly sharp shots at normally unusable slow shutter speeds, also standing with your feet apart and holding your breath whilst taking the shot helps :-)

1/125 sec      f/ 5.6    iso 800     210 mm
The next morning I caught this little girl waiting at her front door, not wanting to go out due to the presence of a unfamiliar person pointing a shiny black device at her :-)

the bridge
1/3200 sec      f/ 5    iso 1250     16 mm
This bridge was built to straddle 2 rivers. In this photo the bridge looks as if its about to collapse under its own unsupported weight but is actually counter balanced by an equally long over hanging unfinished section on the other side which you cannot see.

1/2000 sec      f/ 5    iso 800     16 mm

the good girl

I was on my way to a pottery village (boring) and passed this endearing little girl sitting in a little makeshift stall at the side of the road. She was all by herself, patiently watching the bikes and cars go by. I think that she must be trying to earn a little money for her family. Anyway we helped buy some starfruit from her.

The red scarf is to signify that shes still going to primary school.

the best days of your life
1/3200 sec      f/ 5.6     iso 800    195 mm

1/2000 sec      f/ 5     iso 800     35 mm

Look Back

I saw this mother and child cycling past me, and as they passed the little girl looked atme. I only had my wide angle lens and didnt have time to change lenses for the telephoto so, I ran after her for about 20 metres snapping away trying to frame the shot the best I could. Was really out of breath but thankful I got a shot.

1/400 sec      f/ 8    iso 1600     23 mm
This school girl had come back home for her lunch time break I think, and was tending to her puppies, she was trying to get them to stay in one place in order to help me get a decent shot of them, but all along my motive was to get her in the shot as the main focus :-)
technical note - I actually forgot to set this at a lower iso, and mistakenly had it at 1600 iso

Beer Hoi

Drinking freshly brewed beer (called beer hoi) is a tradition in Hanoi. It can be drunk whilst sitting on the pavement from a street stall, and tastes like a very light tea.
It has to be drunk on the day itself, Im told that it doesn't taste as good later on in the day. I drank 2 beer hois at this restaurant that our hotel-owner friend Thuong Do took us to for lunch. The starter consisted of peanuts then we proceeeded to eat beef with onion (another tradional dish), and then was served a plate of herbs (corriander, spearmint) followed by a plate of hanoi veg, this was all eaten without rice which was a bit strange. At no point did I see any tourists, only locals come to this restarant, overall a very authentic meal, unfortunately, I had to pass up the opportunity to drink snake blood as Rus was scared of snakes.

pink mask
1/20 sec      f/ 8    iso 1000     16 mm
the pink (thin cotton) bag is used to protect the kids from the heavy Hanoi dirt and pollution, I question the effectiveness of this.

Raise the Red Lantern
1/200 sec      f/ 4.5     iso 1600     30 mm
I name this photo after one of my favourite movies Raise the Red Lantern, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li, see this LINK for more info on it.

1/80 sec      f/ 4.5     iso 1600     35 mm


This is a T-shirt hanging up in a market stall. Its ironic that it was Ho Chi Min the nationalist leader and president who fought to free vietnam from the chains of French colonialism and now here is his image on a Tshirt chained up waiting to be sold.

1/200 sec      f/ 4.5     iso 3200     16 mm

strawberrys on a bicycle
1/320 sec      f/ 5     iso 400     19 mm
Walking along the street I was holding the camera with one hand at waist level when I shot this, I didnt stop walking or look through the camera viewfinder, I just relied on pure luck to get me a shot. The beauty of auto focus, auto exposure, digital cameras that let you delete bad photos..... I do not miss using my old manual camera and light meter one bit at all.

1/500 sec      f/ 5     iso 400     80 mm

prey hard

This woman seemed almost in pain as she went around this temple praying to the various idols on display here at the Bach Ma temple

smiley eyes
1/250 sec      f/ 5    iso 400     35 mm
The little girl was playing with her friends, I find it completely fascinating observing how kids interact with each other and I cannot help but try to come into their little world free of life's complications. Just so fun.

little vandal!
1/30 sec      f/ 7.1     iso 400     23 mm

1/100 sec      f/ 5.6     iso 400     16 mm

Pho Bo

Vietnam is famous for its beef noodle (called pho bo) and I took advantage of this opportunity by eating a lot of it at every opportunity, it costs just under $1 usd a bowl and consists of thin rice noodles, lemongrass, corriander, thin slithers of beef, and a squeeze of lemon juice, all served in a rich broth. This stall Rus and I ate at is in the old quarter and was frequented only by the locals (always a good sign), it was actually recommended to us by the hotel owner.

Hanging Tree
1/8000 sec      f/ 4.5     iso 1000     16 mm
This is a typical old building in Hanoi's old quarter.


Its not often I endorse a business or product, but I give my recommendation to the Discovery Hotel in Hanoi as its owner Thuong Do (pictured here) was the most gracious and sincere host I have ever met. The hotel has 6 rooms and is family run with him and his wife, and their baby boy running about (very sweet), prices around $12 usd per night for a twin room with en suite, you should be able to find the hotel listed in next years (2006) version of the Lonely Planet travel guide or in the official Vietnam tourism website.

What really struck me was the lengths Thuong Do went to help me. Seeing that I had arrived with only 3 Tshirts, he immediately lent me his jacket, shirt and hat, and bought socks and medicine for me. Not only that, duing one of his less busy days at the hotel he helped hire us a car and spent a whole day taking us around acting like a tour guide and english translator!! Simply brilliant!!! Another example was when I compared the price of the Halong bay trip with others in our group, ours cost the least even though we all had the same itinery. This is because Thuong Do took a smaller commision than the other hotels. If I come to Hanoi again I will definitely stay there again. If you are thinking of staying in Hanoi, please contact him at his website


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