Hoi An - A Photography Guide

Hoi An - A Photography Guide

I visited Vietnam during a work sabbatical. Leaving London, en route to my home of Sydney, Vietnam was a much needed opportunity to unwind, to recharge and to freely wander and explore with my camera in hand. It was my first time travelling in South East Asia and I definitely experienced a sensory overload that was exhilarating and inspiring. It seems fitting that my first posts are focused on Vietnam as the people and places really inspired me and re-ignited my love for travel photography.

My adventures began in the ancient town of Hoi An in central Vietnam. Hoi An is a popular destination for its historic architecture, delicious food, abundance of fabric and expert tailors and easygoing demeanour. It is a small and relatively serene town (mostly car-free as the streets are so narrow) where you can walk or bike to most places. It is a special place because it is the only town in Vietnam that escaped the war completely unscathed so it has beautifully preserved buildings and an atmosphere that makes you feel like you are caught in a cultural time warp.

Here are my five favourite things to photograph in Hoi An:

1. The Yellow City

The ancient town is painted in varying shades of yellow. The colour yellow has a wonderful restorative quality, reflects light beautifully and brings sunshine and a golden hue to the town that is so inspiring for photography and my overall mood as well. The colourful lanterns and flowers adorning the houses and shops together make this a very photogenic town. During the day and night, the town is busy with tourists and hawkers but the early morning is the perfect time to wander and photograph as the town slowly wakes up against this amazing yellow backdrop. You will see people sweep the front of their houses, vendors carry baskets to their stalls, men fill coffee houses to smoke and drink coffee before setting up shops, women on bicycles or motorbikes going to the market to buy fresh produce. Central Market is hectic but a great place to eat street food, to practice your haggling skills and to people watch. You realise that this ancient town and the way its people goes about their daily lives have not changed in hundreds of years and you feel like you are in a living museum. It is easy to see why visitors like to spend several days, or even a week and more, in Hoi An to take it all in and savour it for a bit longer.

2. Ancient Houses

Hoi An is an UNESCO heritage site where French, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture all come together, housing restaurants, cafes, bars, tailors and museums. I didn’t manage to go inside any museum (apart from the famous Japanese covered bridge which I walked across a few times) but thought they were interesting to photograph.

3. Thu Bon River

The town turns on another level of magic after sunset, when thousands of lanterns lit up the old town and the best place to see the lights and action is along the busy Thu Bon river (ideally with an iced Vietnamese coffee in hand). You can also buy floating lanterns for good luck to send into the river and/or go on a boat ride in the river. Once a month, at full moon, there will be extra parades and celebrations but if you can’t make it for full moon, it is still worth experiencing Hoi An at night as you will still see the beautiful lanterns and can eat your way through the night market (on the other side of the river from the centre of the old town). The riverside is a great photography spot immediately before and after sunset to capture the lights and boats. Another popular activity in Hoi An is taking a cooking class and some of them will include a riverboat ride to a village/restaurant along the river where the class takes place so this is a good way to see Hoi An from the river.

4. Tra Que vegetable village

What made me love Hoi An even more was its proximity to the countryside and the villages nestled in there. One of the more popular villages is the Tra Que vegetable village, where you can watch (and participate) first hand how the farmers grow vegetables (a lot of hard work is involved!) and, if you are lucky, see water buffalos. If Hoi An didn’t do it for you, this is definitely where you will feel like you have stepped back in time to another era. The farmers are very proud of the vegetables and herbs because they do not use any chemicals (a guide mentioned that this is due to costs) and these chemical-free vegetables all make their way to the restaurants and homes in Hoi An. Tra Que is brilliant for photography as the light is stunning (both morning and afternoon, but the photos here are taken in the morning) and hits the lush green fields (especially during the watering times) in the most magical way. The village itself is not very big and has several small lane ways and ponds for you to explore.

Tra Que village is an easy 4 km bike ride from Hoi An. My hotel offered free bicycles (I do recommend renting one for USD3-4 a day if this is not an option or getting a taxi). It was an easy, flat ride once you get on the main road (Hai Ba Trung Street) with rolling rice fields on either side so it was an enjoyable ride that went quite quickly even for a non-confident cyclist like myself! You can also visit Tra Que as part of a cooking class/cycling tour/half-day trip.

An Bang Beach is another 5 mins (by bike) from Tra Que and is a popular place for relaxation/swimming. On the bridge crossing from Tra Que towards An Bang, you will see beautiful views of the pond and maybe even fishermen offloading/working their nets.

5. Fishing Village

As I mentioned above, the nearby villages add to Hoi An’s charm and I will be sharing more about a visit to a fishing village in a second post so watch this space...

UPDATE: The second post is now up here.

Special mentions (of the edible kind)

Apart from photography, I love food so I couldn’t end this post without listing some of my favourite food in Hoi An:

  • Madame Khanh - the Banh Mi Queen - Hands down the best banh mi (baguette filled with a magical concoction of pork and pate, vegetarian option available) ever! I didn’t even realise banh mi’s could taste this good. I ended up going twice in three days and still dream about this once in a while…
  • Morning Glory - this is a foodie institution and is a good all rounder for Vietnamese food.
  • Nu Eatery - for fresh and healthy salads and smoothie and one delicious cheesecake.
  • Reaching Out Teahouse - this teahouse is run by people with disability, mostly mute/deaf people. You fill in the order/menu card and communicate with little wooden cubes which have words like “milk”, “ bill” and “thank you” written on them. Go for the wonderful tea and sweets and the atmosphere of calm and silence, a nice reprieve from the busy streets and traffic outside.
  • Cao Lau - This is a soup with chewy thick noodles (yellow in colour) served with slices of juicy pork, bean sprouts, green vegetables and crunchy croutons. It is a dish specific to Hoi An as the noodles must be made with water from one of the secret wells near Hoi An and the vegetables must be from the Tra Que vegetable village mentioned above. It is definitely worth sampling and you will see Cao Lau restaurants and stalls everywhere. I tried one at Thanh Cao Lau (26 Thái Phiên).