Travel Photography From Vietnam Cambodia Thailand Laos
Why call my images from Southeast Asia culture shock photos if I enjoyed the process? Let’s just say it was a good kind of culture shock, a kind that makes the traveler appreciate every moment and every smile and puts life back at home into perspective.
My first stop on this exciting Southeast Asia travel photography trip was Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and the culture shock could not have hit me any harder after leaving the relaxed atmosphere of Hawaii. Busy intersections like on this photo are without traffic lights even during rush hour.
It is a bit like a dance with its own rhythm. I could sum up the “rules of survival” as a combination of “first come first served” and “size matters”.
Culture Shock And Air Pollution In Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City
At age 40 it was my first trip to Asia and I had no idea what to expect. I think too much research and planning can have negative side effects also other people’s opinions can be different or misleading not to mention the popular recommendations of some travel books which can turn picturesque travel destinations into annoying tourist traps.
So I showed up with a Nikon camera, an open mind, a healthy dose of curiosity plus as much respect and cultural sensitivity as possible.
My first stop on this exciting Southeast Asia travel photography trip was Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and the culture shock could not have hit me any harder after leaving the relaxed atmosphere of Hawaii. Busy intersections like on this photo are without traffic lights even during rush hour. It is a bit like a dance with its own rhythm. I could sum up the “rules of survival” as a combination of “first come first served” and “size matters”.
Crossing the street is another skill or art, walking into speeding live traffic goes against the basic instinct of self preservation but that is the only way to get to the other side. It was funny to visit other less busy towns later on during my trip, being trained in Saigon ensured I was very comfortable crossing streets throughout Southeast Asia.
With culture shock comes a great volume of visually exciting travel photography material, Saigon definitely satisfies and stimulates all senses including the high level of air pollution which results in many people wearing face masks.I was nervous first about how locals would react to being photographed since this was my first attempt at real travel photography but I was put at ease immediately by the kindness of the Vietnamese people.
Black and White Travel Photography On Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Phu Quoc Island is a popular travel destination but still far from being overrun by drunk partying backpackers but these things can change fast. It is not on the usually rushed travel itineraries favored by the masses so I decided to spend Christmas 2007 there instead of the vibrant but polluted Saigon.
The pace of Phu Quoc Island was very relaxing, the people were very nice, the fishing harbor and the main town of Duong Dong provided many travel photography opportunities, let it be children, portraits or cultural themes. I found these basket boats very interesting visually, the man paddling across the harbor really summarizes Phu Quoc Island for me if I had to choose one picture.Not sure why I found black and white photos more effective to portray this island although during the next 8 and a half months I preferred color renditions of my digital images from this trip.
Picture Of Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien Buddhist Pagoda In Ha Tien, Vietnam
Ha Tien is in the guide books but not overly touristy so I was glad to stay a few days and take photos in this idyllic fishing town tucked away in the Western corner of the Mekong Delta close to the Cambodian border.
The Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien Buddhist Pagoda was across the To Chau River from Ha Tien town and as soon as I saw it I knew it would be a very special place to visit.
This Buddhist pagoda has a majestic setting with great view over the river and the surrounding landscape. I spent several hours in the Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien Pagoda on more than one occasion. It was not only a very relaxing experience but a rewarding travel photography subject as well. The vibrant reds yellows and blues of the pagoda translated into nicely saturated color photos.
Black and White Picture Of Stilt Houses On Hau Giang River in Chau Doc, Vietnam
Chau Doc is definitely on the tourist map being close to the Cambodian border providing direct boat access to Phnom Penh. The hassle of cyclo and motorbike drivers quickly disappears after leaving the center of town. I crossed a modern bridge over the Bassac (Hau Giang) River where I took the above photo from this great vantage point and visited some Cham communities which were very rich in travel photography subjects.
Probably not many tourists wonder through those rural Cham areas so I received a warm welcome and countless willing photography subjects in the form of children and adults alike.
Colorful Mekong River Floating Market In Can Tho, Vietnam
Can Tho is the largest town in the Mekong Delta, close enough for the hordes of daytrippers to pour in from Saigon. The main attractions are the floating markets open from sunrise to midday or so to avoid the scorching heat. I stopped by Can Tho for a short time to experience these floating markets during a relaxing 8 hour boat ride first on the Bassac (Hau Giang) River and later exploring life via smaller canals.
The Mekong Delta is a dream destination for any Southeast Asia travel photographer the mighty river, the colors, the flavors and the never ending kindness of the Vietnamese people ensure a great time spite the touristy nature of this town.
Off The Beaten Track Travel Photography In Soc Trang, Vietnam
Soc Trang is not “deep in the Amazonian jungle” off the beaten track type of destination but with Vietnamese standards it is a 180 degree turn from the busy tourist destinations of Chau Doc and Can Tho. During my one week of stay there I saw one Caucasian man, the town is seemingly tourist free. This presented a predicament I needed some time to get used to: being constantly stared at.
It is part of the experience in Southeast Asia but I experienced it to a degree which was quite intense for me. It is a double edged sword, anonymity and blending in is out of the question for candid photos but the people’s curiosity comes with an added benefit: willing photography subjects everywhere.
I really enjoyed my time in Soc Trang wondering aimlessly and finding countless travel photography possibilities around every corner. The above photo of the Vietnamese girl was taken using what I call the “evil wide angle trick”. Meaning when my 12mm lens was pointed straight forward at the wall she had no idea she was also in the photo. This is as close as I can come to being invisible in Vietnam, this technique does work in many circumstances.
Pickpocketing Incident In Bac Lieu, Vietnam
I found Vietnam to be an extremely safe country although I never did stagger home drunk at 2AM from a seedy bar in Hanoi. With that said in 9 months something unfortunate will happen, the place was Bac Lieu where I got pick pocketed. I got my credit card back, lost about 260 dollars cash but it is part of the experience. The local Police after finding my wallet (which seemed like a miracle) was trying to save face explaining that this is not how Vietnamese people are this is the exception.
But soon after that they asked me to leave “beer money” as founder’s fee for the Police. Even though I got ripped off by a 14 year old Vietnamese girl and the Vietnamese Police in 24 hours it all worked out at the end and I am not holding a grudge against Vietnam for this.I did leave Bac Lieu right after the incident so I did not explore this tourist free and possibly rewarding travel photography destination at this time (hence the lack of great Bac Lieu photos).
Picture Of Vietnamese Boat Company Outside Ha Tien, Vietnam
I returned to Ha Tien as I’ve had circled the Mekong Delta using Vietnamese public transportation which is an experience in itself. The familiarity meant I was kind of coming home to Ha Tien which is a nice feeling when being on the road for extended amount of time. Of course I revisited my favorite Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien Buddhist Pagoda. I did some aimless walks on random roads leaving town and encountering many surprises like this boat factory. All these walks ensure a unique, exciting and unplanned day rich in travel photography opportunities.
Picture Of Curious Cham Sisters In Chau Doc, Vietnam
The circling of the Mekong Delta actually ended by revisiting Chau Doc and the kind Cham communities which have provided me with many nice travel photos. I decided not to cross the Cambodian border at Ha Tien and not head to some questionable Cambodian commercial beach destination but take a boat to Phnom Penh to break up the monotony of riding the bus. Chau Doc once again delivered great and memorable photos!
Picture Of Buddhist Monks In Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The poverty of Phnom Penh is one travel photography subject, Buddhist monks and Buddhist pagodas (Wats in Cambodia) are another. I felt a bit uneasy to stick my camera into people’s faces who live in such poor conditions, there is a stark contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia at the expense of Cambodians of course. The scars of the recent genocide are still very visible.
On a positive note the vibrant colors of the robes of Buddhist monks are fantastic and exotic accessories when doing portrait, travel and cultural photography in Southeast Asia. Even though shy at first monks are very happy and eager to practice their English skills, so don’t be afraid to talk to them!
My Seven Year Old Guest Photographer in Kampong Cham, Cambodia
Kampong Cham is not a must see, highly ranked place according to travel guides which was great news for me: not a tourist trap with few foreigners! I found plenty of very rewarding travel photography subjects within a short walk from my hotel, unfortunately coupled with children living in extreme poverty. Kampong Cham was the place where I “could not help” but be more generous with beggars and buy proper sit down lunches for kids whom I photographed during the day.
My 7 year old guest photographer on the photo is a Cambodian boy who expressed great interest while I was taking photos in his neighborhood, so I let him use my camera which resulted surprisingly in some very nice photos not to mention a fun day for him.
Tourist Trap Picture Of Angkor Wat Monk In Siem Reap, Cambodia
I made a 48 hour tourist trap exception by visiting Angkor Wat because it is Angkor Wat! A better name would be Angkorland after Disneyland therefore the way I adopted my picture taking process to the hordes of tourists was by incorporating them into my photos. It was almost impossible not to have tourists in my frames although it became a fun pastime to try to “hide” foreigners behind Buddha statues and columns while photographing among ancient Khmer ruins.
Although tourists are unavoidable at world famous sites like Angkor Wat, what’s most disturbing was the loud, inconsiderate and culturally insensitive behavior displayed. But such is life.
I felt sorry for the Buddhist monk in the above photo (they are gentle, shy and peaceful by nature) when I saw the photographer in the Nikon shirt physically pushing the him to that spot and asking him to pray. A completely fabricated setup and pose also quite possibly culturally inaccurate because I never saw monks pray like that before.
Black and White Picture Of Khmer Wat In Battambang, Cambodia
Historic Battambang represented a nice relaxed pace compared to the zoo like Angkor Wat experience. The town has great colonial architecture and picturesque Khmer Wats within walking distance. Khmer Wats are colorful but for some reason in the case of a series of photos taken on this location the black and white versions did not loose much impact from lack of color and did gain some drama and intensity which I liked. Although Battambang is on the tourist map it does not feel overrun and a good place for a short stop.
Picture Of Ancient Khmer Ruins Of Wat Mahathat In Sukhothai, Thailand
Ancient Khmer ruins in Thailand offer unforgettable travel photography subjects and visual experiences. Arriving at locations as early as possible can make all the difference as far as quality of light and the number of tourists are concerned. Although my stay in Thailand was cut short because of the touristy and commercial nature of this country nevertheless I came away with nice photos and fond memories.
Picture Of Communist Guard At Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum In Hanoi, Vietnam
Having more time and money than I expected after cutting my Thailand stay short I returned to Vietnam but this time to Hanoi the communist capital which gave me communist Hungarian flashbacks from my childhood.
There was a noticeable difference compared to Southern Vietnam and the Mekong Delta, people of the North were not unfriendly let’s just say less friendly than what I experienced at the beginning of my trip in the South.
There were restrictions to take photos around government buildings in Hanoi which was interesting and reminded how it was prohibited to photograph train stations in Hungary as I was growing up.
This photo was taken on the lawn of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which is a tourist spot therefore allowed to be photographed. Directly photographing guards or soldiers my not be the best idea but I managed to snap a few photos with a long lens trying to juxtapose some interesting elements like the women in the conical hats caring for the lawn, the typical yellow building, the Vietnamese flag and the guard.
Picture Of Communist Square In Haiphong, Vietnam
They say Haiphong is like Hanoi used to be a decade ago. It is true there are not many tourists but as I walked around I was not incredibly inspired. Not many photos were taken in Hai Phong but not all stops result in incredible pictures, it was a nice relaxed spot to unwind after the busy capital. There is a lot of red color in Vietnam and on this photo. Red always pops on pictures so for that reason I do like this shot of a Haiphong Square (it’s also nice to have the face of Uncle Ho in some of my photos).
Picture Of Sunset Over Limestone Mountains Of Ninh Binh, Vietnam
I rate Ninh Binh the inland Halong Bay one of my most favorite travel destinations, it is on the tourist map and only a 2 hour bus ride from Hanoi but it is far from being overrun with tourists thanks the the cookie cutter itineraries of most travelers (Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sapa, Hue, Hoi An, Dalat, Saigon).
The stunning limiestone landscape just outside Ninh Binh can be easy reached on bicycle and explored often without seeing another tourist. The boat tours departing at Tom Coc represent the only sizable tourist spot. Needless to say Ninh Binh is an excellent travel photography location with friendly and curious locals who are a bit more materialistic than their Southern Vietnamese country men. I had a good laugh every time I was greeted with: “Hello Money” by kids as opposed to the customary simple Hello.
Out of all the pictures I took in Ninh Binh I am including this sunset photo to remind me of my excellent 7 dollar hotel room (Xuan Hoa Hotel) and the view from its balcony where I got to enjoy these magnificent sunsets.
Vietnamese Woman With Bicycle In Kenh Ga, Vietnam
Kenh Ga village is about 45 minutes of motorbike ride from Ninh Binh, it is a peaceful place, popular (but not overrun) with tourists for its boat tours through its karst mountain decorated landscape. The boat tour was OK, the ride there was breathtaking through rice fields and soaring karst mountains.
But I had travel photography in mind so I walked around the village taking pictures of simple life unfolding and of course curious kids.The picture of this Vietnamese woman with her bicycle was taken from the boat during the tour, it could not be more typical depiction of life here.
Flower Hmong Boys With Water Buffalo In Bac Ha, Vietnam
The joys of travel photography can be summed up with one word: children. Add water buffalos, high mountains, rice terraces, colorful Flower Hmong hill tribe culture and you are in Bac Ha. Or in Sapa of course the ultimate tourist trap of Northwest Vietnam famous for its stunning fog covered postcard-like landscapes.
I choose Bac Ha a popular daytrip destination from Sapa for its famous Sunday Flower Hmong market. Bac Ha is almost completely void of tourist between Monday and Saturday. I stayed for 10 days so I could attend the markets twice, I spent about 6 hours each time at the market photographing surrounded by this colorful culture.
Definitely a National Geographic quality experience for tourist or travel photographers alike. During the week I walked to nearby Hmong villages through fantastic landscapes and had a chance to observe the very (camera) shy Hmong minorities without the distraction of the hordes of Sapa tourists.
Landscape With Limestone Mountains In Ninh Binh, Vietnam
My previous stop Bac Ha was a detour so on my way from North to South I traveled through my favorite travel destination again: Ninh Binh. It was great to return, coming back any place for the second time I always experience a coming home type of feeling.
Once again I took a few rides on my 1 dollar per day rental bicycle and enjoyed the karst mountainous landscape. It is not difficult at all to take photos like this one without tourists in them, I have been to tourist traps so I really appreciate peaceful places like Ninh Binh.
Picture Of Pink Buddha Face At Khmer Pagoda In Tra Vinh, Vietnam
The next leg of the journey consisted of six stopovers in six days covering approximately 1000 miles in bouncing honking buses. Central Vietnam did not inspire me photographically speaking not saying it is not worthy of visiting it just did not work for me.
I was ready to return to my favorite area of Vietnam the Mekong Delta, this time exploring the town of Tra Vinh a Khmer region, an area which used to belong to Cambodia.Tra Vinh is 5 hours away from Saigon meaning just out of reach for the hordes of day tripping tourists. Tra Vinh is almost completely void of tourists (I saw 2 travelers in a week). The amount of stares the town’s curious citizens gave me was comparable to the neighboring Soc Trang which I visited earlier during this trip.
Tra Vinh did deliver though with its Khmer style pagodas (Wats), its most excellent bicycle rides through rice fields in the country side and of course its dirt cheap rambutans (chom chom in Vietnamese). The color of the pink Buddha head was a bit surprising above the entrance to a Khmer pagoda and I was told it is dictated by the Vietnamese government as part of their continuing efforts to control the life of Khmer minorities.
Authentic Vietnamese Travel Photography In Can Tho, Vietnam
Making circles in Southeast Asia has been working out nicely, this time I found myself in Can Tho again home of the famous Mekong River floating market boat tours. I took another tour because they provide a special chance to do some authentic Vietnamese travel photography.
There are no second takes so one has to be quick and accurate with the camera. After leaving the busy floating markets the hours spent exploring the canals surrounded by banana trees, rice fields and real Mekong Delta lifestyle were a great experience.
Like “meeting” this Vietnamese man in his boat … the photo to me has a time standing still feel. And even though Can Tho is the largest town of the Mekong Delta and a busy tourist spot besides the floating markets I did not see another tour boat while traveling through these waterways.
Picture Of Cham Little Girl With Healing Haircut In Chau Doc, Vietnam
Third time the charm so yes, I am back in Chau Doc on my way back to Cambodia to visit Laos after that as opposed to Thailand last time. Revisiting the Cham communities across the river from Chau Doc was rewarding in the form of smiles, warm welcomes and the photos.
Although communicating in English is very limited in rural areas of Vietnam but I was able to gather that this little Cham girl has been ill on and off since birth and this special haircut is supposed to keep her healthy.
Rural Olympics: Kids Racing Snails In Takeo, Cambodia
Instead of taking a boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh I crossed the border on land which is a bit more adventurous but more fun being more “interactive”. I spent one day in Takeo which is somewhat recommended as a daytrip destination for travelers who have time to kill.
I do not care for daytrips because the round trip transportation takes up too much time so I spent 2 days in Takeo taking photos so I cold walk around and do as I please without time constraints.
Coming across these two Cambodian boys was a classic right place right time scenario, I was taking their pictures for an hour straight (search this site for “Takeo” to find the post) as they were either showing off for the camera or just having their usual good old time.
After they were done racing snails in the mud they jumped into their buffalo’s grazing area being really silly. It was a great time making the trip to the unassuming Takeo a success.
Wat Hopping In Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I stopped by Phnom Penh to get my visa to Laos. The fee seemed unusually high (40 dollars for 30 days) little I knew it was going to be the theme of my visit to Laos but such is life. I did a little photography in the capital of Cambodia, visited some Wats, had some conversation with Buddhist monks and left after a couple of days.
Pictures From The Pepper Capital: Kampot, Cambodia
So I took a bumpy bus ride to the pepper capital: Kampot from the real capital: Phnom Penh. The town still shows the scars of the recent genocide as I was told by a monk that opportunities are few for the young and corruption is rampant.
Kampot has a very nice river front and the most refreshing sea breeze coming from the Gulf of Thailand. As far as travel photography I did my usual random walks finding never ending flow of photo material just by observing the simple life all around. Kampot is mentioned in tour guides but not touristy at all which is always a consideration when I select my travel destinations.
And yes, the pepper is good! I am grinding it over my meals daily as I am back in Hungary now writing these lines.
Pictures Of Children In Poverty: Kompong Cham, Cambodia
Spending even just a day among children living in poverty puts life in a different perspective. Apparently it is too hard for some people to handle because when I recommended an Australian girl to visit Kompong Cham to really get to know Cambodia and give back just a little to the people and children of Cambodia she replied: no, I don’t think I could look at them, it is too sad, I will just go to Angkor Wat and do the usual touristy stuff.
I found it rather sad to witness another tourist supporting (only) the multi million dollar Angkor Wat (a.k.a. Angkorland after Disneyland) tourism industry. As opposed to the poorest people of Cambodia who have less than one dollar to their names. Once again: millions of dollars versus one dollar. And yes, I know the hordes of tourist pouring into Siem Reap do support a wide spectrum of local businesses but the distribution of wealth is grossly unbalanced in Cambodia.
I was glad to return to Kompong Cham, the town is not at all touristy and it has a great atmosphere. There are extremely poor neighborhoods just a short walk from the center and my hotel which are fortunately and unfortunately provide plenty of travel, cultural and children photography subjects.
The day started with me buying 30 muffins at a nice Khmer bakery next to my hotel and taking it to the neighborhood of my 7 year old guest photographer (see notes a few entries above) and let him take some photos once again to his delight. The photo above of the 3 kids eating the muffins was taken by him as well.
After our walks and photo sessions were over I took him and a few of his friends to have a proper sit down lunch and bought them a huge bag of rambutans. The next day I returned with 30 more muffins and took a little girl to a dermatologist who I saw the day before covered with a rash.No matter how much I give it never seems enough but it is a start, also I could not sleep at night if I did nothing but that is just me.
Only a fraction of the millions of dollars going to Angkor Wat would make life so much better for the people and children of Cambodia living in poverty. There are more details and photos about my days spent in Kompong Cham, just do a site search for “Kompong Cham”.
Flower Hmong Hill Tribe Sunday Market In Bac Ha, Vietnam
Some of my favorite Southeast Asia travel destinations have been Ninh Binh, Tra Vinh, Ha Tien, Kompong Cham, Chau Doc and last but not least the truest National Geographic photo and tourist experience: Bac Ha. Therefore I returned to this peaceful town to spend my 41st birthday to attend 2 more Flower Hmong Sunday markets, to take walks to Hmong hill tribe villages and to enjoy the mountainous landscape decorated with rice terraces.
Any town like Bac Ha which does not have a single ATM is great destination for children, cultural, documentary, landscape and general travel photography. Although the Hmong are a bit camera shy it only means that a lower percentage of encounters result in photos. The Sunday Hmong markets offer a technicality because the market is not only busy with tourists desensitizing the locals to the clicking of cameras but the market offers a closed controlled location which they cannot “escape” from.
The market is a great way to support the local Hmong minorities plus the prices are lower and more negotiable than in souvenir shops of Hanoi or other bigger Vietnamese cities.
Cultural Documentary Street Photography From Hanoi, Vietnam
Nine months after arriving to Saigon I found myself in Hanoi ready to finish my Southeast Asia trip which took me through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – in that order. Sounds like a restless itinerary but I prefer to be on the go to keep my photographic experiences fresh. When I say ready to wrap this trip up I mean for financial reasons not for any other.
I truly enjoyed my first trip to Asia and definitely planning to return. In the final few days I did some cultural, documentary street photography in the communist capital.
Ducks are great subjects and threes always work in photos so this will be just as good of a last photo as any on this page. You can click on the Blog link in the navigation bar to read more about my stops and to see more photos per town as well. If you are interested to be notified when my Southeast Asia Travel Photography books are published please use the Contact form.