I’ve travelled a fair bit. I’ve taken a lot of photos during these travels.
And I’ve come to the conclusion that a little yellow-walled ancient city called Hoi An, in Central Vietnam, is one of the best places for street photography on this funny planet of ours.
Which is lucky, because it’s where I live at the moment. Coincidence? Not exactly. 😉
Let’s get one thing out of the way: street photography is not just photographing a street. I mean, yes, it does mostly take place on a street… but there’s a lot more to it than simply pointing your camera at a street scene, hitting the shutter and hoping for the best.
We call that ‘happy snapping’ – and it’s what your mother does on holiday, usually with her thumb partially covering the lens. Sorry mum, love you! 😉
There is a long tradition of street photography, almost as old as photography itself, and there are many different schools of thought. But to distill 200+ years into a nutshell, it’s about looking for the unexpected in the mundane; that extra sumthin’ sumthin’ in an otherwise banal scene that lifts the ordinary to the extraordinary.
While documentary photography and travel photography usually try to be quite obvious and clear in what they depict, street photography often tries to leave an element of mystery. A ‘curiosity gap’ that allows viewers to use their imagination and finish the story themselves. (Kind of like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” kids’ books.
This extra freedom lends itself to quite random conclusions, and often a greater sense of humour in the photos/stories. Which is what I love about it.
Portraits are not a form of street photography, even if they happen in the street. In fact, there’s a whole separate category for that – handily enough, called street portraits.
The main difference between the two is that with street photography, the aim is to be as close to invisible as possible. And while it’s not essential that you remain unnoticed as a street photographer, the intention is to capture a scene as if you were.
And most importantly, street photography is always always unstaged and unedited – which, unfortunately, a lot of travel photography cannot claim anymore.
Now of course good travel photography, real travel photography isn’t staged either and Hoi An is a great place for this too. One of the best. But travel photography has been tainted for too long by faked images that it either needs a new name or a good clean out.
Claiming that anywhere is the “best place” for anything is a little silly, in my opinion.
Why? Well, because it’s completely subjective… and of course, I haven’t actually been to every city in the world so I can’t know for sure. (For that, you’ll have to head over to the brilliant Shooterfiles and follow Mr Walker’s efforts.)
So I’m aware that some hardened street fans who read this might start shouting: “What about New York, you clot?” or “What about Tokyo, you nut?” or “What about Hong Kong and freaking Paris, you blithering fool?!” at their screens. (If that’s you, I’m sorry but such antics aren’t going to get you anywhere. I’m not your Alexa, or your Siri. I’m not listening to you. I’m out taking photos.)
I’m simply here to tell you why I love this town in particular and why I think, if you’re into street photography, you should consider putting it on your “to shoot” list.
Let’s start with the bleedin’ obvious: Hoi An is simply a very pretty place to be. It’s old, it’s charming and it’s got a colour scheme – school bus yellow. It’s also a UNESCO Heritage Site, meaning it’s gonna stay pretty too. Hopefully.
Of course, beautiful and street photography don’t necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, quite often a bit of dirt and grime make far more interesting backdrops than a nice garden. Dhaka is a mecca for serious street photographers and that town ain’t exactly gonna win any beauty contests soon.
But I can tell you from experience, it definitely helps your inspiration levels when you spend hours walking around somewhere so visually pleasing as Hoi An – as opposed to a rainy, cloud-infested city in Northern Europe (Edinburgh, I’m looking at you, you windy ol’ bastard).
With its yellow walls (given a textured look by annual monsoons), pretty blue window shutters, constant supply of bougainvillaea and hanging baskets, it’s little wonder that Hoi An is an Instagrammer’s wet dream. It also makes a great backdrop for street shots.
This is definitely something that Vietnamese cities – or those in neighbouring South East Asian countries like Thailand and Myanmar – have as an advantage over say, NYC, London, Paris or Los Angeles.
Life here is lived on the streets – and not behind fences or walls. Why? Well, because it’s hot inside. Like, really hot. So you’d be a fool to stay there!
Windows and doors are always open. People eat, play, meet and even sleep outside. Meaning there’s a never-ending supply of interesting subjects and photo opportunities.
One of the most consistent themes in street photography is the search for contrasts.
These can be found throughout any bustling city. A bald man standing next to a bushy tree. A chubby lady eating ice-cream, walking past a billboard that displays a bikini model. The list goes on and on.
For anyone hunting down these contrasts, Hoi An is manna from heaven. Every morning I see old ladies, older than time itself, in their traditional clothing… strolling past hordes of selfie-swapping teenagers and buzzing drones taking wedding photos.
Every day, the ancient houses of the Old Town are filled with groups of Asian tourists wearing fake Ray Bans and day-glow spandex to keep the sun from their skin – looking like they can’t make up their mind if they want to play a round of golf or compete in the Tour de France.
Not to mention the groups of both local and foreign tourists, who dress up in traditional ao dai before pulling decidedly modern Instagram friendly poses.
Contrasts, contrasts, everywhere contrasts.
Vietnam is a very easy country for people photography. My friend Etienne has made a successful career out of the fact that you can approach pretty much any Vietnamese stranger and within moments, be taking photos of them like you’ve known them for decades.
And that friendliness makes it easy to enter any situation with confidence. But the handy thing is, this openness isn’t over-the-top friendly. People might stop what they’re doing for a moment to say hello and smile – but they’ll soon get right back to work. Or right back to playing cards.
It’s this indifference that works so well.
In fact, this indifference amazes me sometimes. I’ve taken photos in incredibly rural villages around Hoi An where, after the initial ‘raised eyebrows and smile’ combo, locals have gone right back to the task at hand, completely ignoring the 6ft+ hairy white man sweating profusely and grinning like a loon.
In contrast, I’ve shot in countries like India and Bangladesh. Places where it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want their photo taken. And while this super-friendliness toward strangers is genuinely heart-warming in a Trumpian world of increased xenophobia, it can make getting natural shots harder.
If you head to less visited places, you’ll end up with a crowd all trying their hardest to get into your photos. So unfortunately, you lose the opportunity for more natural scenes. Thankfully in Hoi An and Vietnam in general there is a nice balance between friendly but not too friendly.
The good thing about Hoi An is that everyone is constantly taking photos. And when people are taking photos of themselves they tend to be fairly self-absorbed… so they don’t notice, or don’t care, if you have a camera in your hand and are taking photos, too!
Everyone is toting a DSLR – or more likely, a selfie stick. So you can snap your shots of the selfie kings and queens without a solitary eyelid being batted. Phew.
This is the analogy I use whenever describing Hoi An to anyone I meet who hasn’t been.
Because Hoi An really is like a real-life theme park – only one in which people actually live, going about their everyday lives in a magical setting.
The town feels and looks fake. The buildings of the Old Town look like a film set – especially when basked in the golden morning light.
Even now, part of me thinks that if I peek through the right window at the right time, I’ll discover a soundstage behind, crammed with cameramen and stagehands. But no, behind the fake-looking facades live families that have been here for generation upon generation.
In fact, if you hit the streets early enough, you’ll find old couples drinking their morning coffee on the same steps they’ve perched on their entire lives. The same steps their great great grandparents built.
I’ve been coming to Hoi An for four years now. And even in that very short time, a lot has changed. Even compared to last year, it feels more crowded. A lot of the longer-term expats I know bemoan the fact it isn’t the quaint town it used to be. Which is most likely true.
The difference between us is that for them it just means more traffic, busier streets and more pollution; for me it means more opportunities for candid shots.
Since street photography is essentially a numbers game, busy is good. Sure, it takes skill and massive amounts of luck – but the more people doing the silly things that people do, the higher the chance they’ll make it into your frame.
The centre of Hoi An is small and easily walkable. It’s possible to cover the entire city in a day without any need for public transport. (Which is good because there isn’t any public transport!)
Like I said, street photography doesn’t just happen on streets. You can ‘shoot street’ anywhere really – in villages, markets, dockyards, football stadiums, churches, temples, farms and even on beaches. And Hoi An is home to all of these locations.
Actually, shooting on beaches is one of my favourite things to do. And Hoi An has a collection of them, all within a short walk, cycle or drive from the town. Cua Dai beach is amazing in the morning for locals doing exercises, An Bang beach is great in the afternoon for tourists being touristy, and then there’s a whole coastline of amazing villages furnished with fishing activity to capture.
Hoi An is one of the safest towns I’ve ever spent time in. Walking around, I often feel like the most dangerous person on the entire street. And if you’ve seen me you’ll know how hilarious that is.
Apart from maybe getting bumped by a slow moving motorbike, or poked in the ribs by a boney old lady who thinks you are in her way, nothing bad is going to happen to you here.
India and Bangladesh, my two other favourite places to shoot, are also very safe. Much safer than anywhere back home in the UK – but even in super friendly towns like Kolkata or Dhaka, I wouldn’t necessarily feel 100% comfortable wandering around with my camera in the middle of the night.
Whereas in Hoi An, I would happily go out at 3am, set up a tripod on any street corner and have zero fear. In fact, in Hoi An you’re likely to meet a friendly face you know on a morning walk.
The Vietnamese get up early… really early.
Da Nang is Vietnam’s fifth-largest city – and it’s less than an hour from Hoi An. Which means you can get to it quicker than you can get from one side of London to the other.
They’re so close in fact that many people stay in Da Nang and visit Hoi An for the day, or even just for dinner. Or vice versa.
The proximity of Da Nang is great for street photographers because it’s like a buy-one-get-one-free situation. If the tourist hordes of Hoi An get too much for you, head to Da Nang for the afternoon and it’s possible to get lost in lanes filled with authentic Vietnamese city street life.
Plus, Da Nang is going through boomtimes – meaning construction site action galore, with high rises rising higher and higher.
So if it’s neon lights, billboards and fancy shop fronts you crave, Da Nang will scratch that itch. And if Hoi An’s quaintness gets too sickly sweet, Da Nang is the perfect antidote. It’s a city suited to street shooters who like their images a little more ‘classical urban’, that New York Times Square style of straight lines and high contrasting shadows.
Finally, as a beach city with a wide river running through the centre, Da Nang is blessed with not one but three waterfronts! Head to the beach early and you’ll also find the Vietnamese equivalent of Venice Beach, with meaty locals being meaty. Head to the riverside at sundown and you’ll find locals on their afternoon promenade, relaxing and exercising once the day’s heat has abated.
Hoi An is a weird town. It just is. If you are a quirkhunter then there is no place better.
Ok, so this last one doesn’t have much to do with street photography – but it always helps to be able to refuel yourself after a few hours of pounding the streets! And there’s no better place to do it in than Hoi An, where you can get a giant big bowl of unbelievably tasty noodles, like those from Uncle Tan’s stand above, for less than $2.
Plus the coffee is good. Far too good.
Do yourself a favour, my snap happy friends – when you’re making your dream list of cities to shoot next year, add friendly little Hoi An to it. You won’t regret it.
Oh and if you do come here, don’t forget to say hello!