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Night fishing: a nocturnal photography expedition in Vietnam

It had been something I had wanted to do for over 10 years; spend the whole night fishing with the fishermen of central Vietnam.

After visiting fishing villages at sunrise in Vietnam for over 15 years, I was always curious to see how the fishermen work at night. I had plans to go and spend the night at sea with them for many years now but never managed to materialize. 

\Well, last week, I finally managed to find the time to do this. And wow, what an experience it was!

Meeting our fishermen’s team

Jean and I headed to our favourite fishing village in central Vietnam. This is a place that we love to go to take photos of as it is one of the busiest fish markets there is around. It offers so many great photo opportunities that it’s ridiculous! This is the reason why we include this location in our central Vietnam photo tours. This is a location we also often visit with Hoi An Photo Tour. But as this place is so special we only bring advanced photographers. It can be very overwhelming for someone with less experience.

We had been taking photos of the fishermen coming back for so many years. But never had we spent a full night fishing on the boat with them. We were pretty excited!

Thanks to our local friends in the village, we arranged to come in the afternoon, as the fishermen leave in the afternoon. I asked my friend what should we bring. His answer for very simple: camera gear and beers. Just my kind of photo shoot! 🙂

Camera gear and beers are all you need…

We met our new “fishing team” on the beach around 3 pm. The dream team of fishermen: some young and strong guys to handle the heavy fishing nets. And a few older and more experienced guys to make sure that everything is made properly. And 2 of us, foreigners with our cameras. 

three vietnamese fishermen row their basket boat at sunrise

Handling camera gear in a tough situation

We were honestly wondering what kind of shooting conditions we would be facing. We took a dry box to keep the gear dry, soft wet tissues to clean the gear in case of exposure to salty water, more waterproof bags, etc… I only packed my Fujifilm Xt2 with me, leaving the Xt3 at home just in case things got a little too wet.

But as we are in the middle of summer and the weather is very good, we did not experience any rain or crazy splashing! It was in fact pretty easy and comfortable for our gear. I could have been shooting video with a whole rig and sound and it would have been fine… under these conditions of course. I could not imagine having done the same thing in winter when the waves and winds are high.

First step: individual fishing

After an hour on the boat, the light started to become more interesting. The fishermen then started pulling out fishing lines from the boat, and all individually started fishing. 

I understood something at that point: when we usually see the fishermen come back from the night at sea, they bring buckets full of fish. But they also each have their own individual basket with some fish in it. These are the fish they catch themselves before launching the big net. They will sell these fishes or bring them home for daily meals. 

Before it got dark, the captain turned on all the boat lights. And this is how they mostly fish here: huge incandescent lights on the boat will attract all sorts of insects, fishes, squids, etc… to the surface, which will in turn attract bigger fishes. 

So the fishermen spend a couple of hours line fishing like that. It was a very relaxed time, with everyone chatting and smiling, and talking about the squid we will be having for dinner with the beers we brought. At that time they were mostly getting some largehead hairtail fishes or beltfish. You may know this fish as a member of the cutlassfish family. Or not, you don’t! These are already pretty impressive fishes given their size, their shininess (they look like pure silver!) and the size of their teeth!

Second step: collective fishing

After a while, we could tell that they were more and more fish around the boat. Suddenly, one of the fishermen saw a shoal of fish swimming under the boat. They yelled out some orders and the whole team packed their lines and started deploying the giant fishing net. 

Let me try and describe how the fishing works here: 

  • 2 guys throw the basket boats in the sea and start paddling around. One of them is carrying a floating like behind him, probably to keep attracting the fishes
  • The rest of the team starts deploying the fishing net, giving it to one of the men in the basket boat. Then they turn off the lights. Which literally made photography impossible. 
  • Once the captain feels that they are in the right spot (he was also using sonar to detect the shoals of fish) he blasts the engines on and navigates in a circle shape to deploy the net around the man in the basket boat
  • Once the boat has made a turnaround, the team grabs the other end and starts pulling it back into the boat
  • Then, for over an hour, engines will be pulling the giant net back into the boat, while all the fishermen are sorting the fish that come out of it.

It is a very intense session when they deploy the net, and I tried my best not to be in the middle of the action so as not to disturb them. I only had a few interesting angles I could use on this narrow boat, and I could only start shooting again once the captain turned on some of the lights again. 

After the guys had finished pulling the net back in, we celebrated by cooking some freshly caught squid, and rice and of course opening a few beers! It was a fantastic experience to eat this fresh seafood on this rocking boat in the middle of the ocean (I mean, we were about 20 km away from the coast. I consider this middle of the ocean 😉

After a small break where the guys were line fishing again, they decided to have another go at the giant fishing net. It took them a couple of hours again to deploy it and then bring it back, which time I enjoyed taking a small nap 🙂

I processed most of the night photos in black and white due to the very high noise in these images (no thank you to Fuji…). There were also colours all over the place and I feel the black and white process has simplified a lot of the compositions in these images.

The best of night fishing: when morning comes

I was awakened around 4.30 am as the boat was coming back to the shore. The first lights and colours started showing up in the sky. Which is basically normally the time we are driving from Hoi An to get to this village. As we arrived, a group of fishermen took all the fishes and squids that they had caught using the big net, loaded them into the basket boat and headed to the shore. We and other guys stayed on the boat, cleaning up and watching the colours become more and more vivid. 

The man who left us then came back, and I saw them all loading their own individual basket of fish they had caught using fishing lines. They also loaded us and took us to the shore. Jean and I then enjoyed hanging out on the beach, seeing all these fish being bought and sold and finally understanding the fishing process of the Vietnamese fishermen. 

It was an incredible experience that I would be keen to run again. So who wants to join the next expedition? 

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Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

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