One of my favourite trips each year is when I say goodbye to the rivers and lagoons of Central Vietnam and head for respite, into the mountains of North Vietnam.
No matter how many times I head north, it still feels like an adventure into the unknown. By the way, you can also check out 2018’s photo tour summary.
This year, I was delighted to be joined by photographer buddy Frederik Wissink. Fred helps me run tours in Hoi An – but this is the first time we have ever travelled so far together. And I was thrilled to have someone with his editorial, technical and landscape photography skills onboard to complement my own teaching style.
Another change this year (from my last few trips) was that we went deeper and stayed in more remote locations than ever before. We did this for the adventure, and because tourism moves quickly in Vietnam. Places that were remote a couple of years ago are now firmly on the normal tourist trail… and we wanted to avoid them.
So with five students, two photo instructors, a driver and our local guide (who, we all agreed, should win a “guide of the year” award – if one exists), we left Hanoi and headed north for eight days of pure travel photography joy.
Day 1: Getting warmed up
Blessed with great weather on Day 1, we decided to visit an incense-producing village just outside of Hanoi. This little hamlet is a heaven for photographers due to the incredibly vivid colours, repeating patterns and fascinating backgrounds it offers.
What’s an incense village, I hear you ask? Well, it’s a village where they make the incense that’s burned daily in temples across the land. And yes, it smells pretty good.
This was a great start to our North Vietnam photography tour, as the location offered easy photo opportunities to help the group “warm-up”.
One of the downsides, however, was that the village was so picturesque, many of the photos the group came away with looked staged. Like photos you might see winning travel awards, appearing on the cover of National Geographic.
NOTE: Unlike those faked shots, this village was very real – and so were the photos our group came away with!
Because you see, the amazing thing about Vietnam is that you don’t have to stage photos to get unbelievable images – just like my group demonstrated. You simply need to know the right spots.
After the exhilaration of the incense village – and with some killer images in the bag – we hopped back in the bus for the long ride to Bac Ha.
Rather than being boring or a chore, I actually love the long drives on our tours. Why? Well, they are a great opportunity for the group to get to know each other, for everyone to bond and for myself and Fred, as instructors, to discover our students’ needs and expectations for the trip ahead.
Day 2: Markets, buffalos and avoiding clichés
Anyone who has heard anything about Bac Ha will know about its famous market. Which is exactly why, on Day 2, we went somewhere else entirely! In light rain, we headed not to Bac Ha, but to Coc Ly market instead. A much less-known and far more traditional market, not too far away.
We mixed with locals, snapping away and chatting happily while hunting for the interesting light that would really make our images pop.
The buffalo market was one of the highlights of the entire trip. Being able to capture these big beasts fighting to show off their strength is a sight to behold. Not to mention a great photo opportunity.
After a satisfying morning of market action, we headed on to Muong Hum, before checking into a shiny new riverside hotel located at the bottom of a very impressive valley.
From this point onwards, the adventure really began. We all got that feeling that we were leaving “the normal world” behind. This sensation wouldn’t leave us until Day 5. In fact, during the first five days of the tour, we only met one other foreigner traveller.
(This was also the point at which we realised that our drinks would no longer come cold. Fridges and ice aren’t big in the mountains. Oh well, it was worth it!)
After lunch, we explored the surrounding valley. Unfortunately for us, due to a very hot and sunny summer in the north, almost all of the rice in Muong Hum was already harvested. Still, undeterred, we kept on – and eventually came across a group of Red Dzao reaping the last of their crop.
One of the highlights of an already full day was on the way back – when we stumbled upon a group of kids playing in freshly cut hay. This was a prime opportunity for the group to work with layers and fast-moving subjects. Kids don’t stay still for long!
For me, it was also an important moment to teach the group about the importance of avoiding clichéd images of children posing for the camera; the world has quite enough of these already.
Obviously, we had to end the day with a spectacular sunset over the mountains. A great opportunity for Fred to talk to the group about the advantage of using long focal lenses for landscape photography.
FYI: The food in Muong Hum was some of the best of the entire trip. Local food in Northern Vietnam is fresh and healthy… and their rice wine, in particular, is very helpful in keeping you warm at night!
Day 3: Y Ty The Spectacular, Muddy Bums and Bamboo Worms
We woke early and hit the local market for breakfast. It wasn’t a market day – but that didn’t matter. The lack of bustle in the quiet marketplace actually made it much easier to make friends with the local women selling their produce. As a result, the group got some great intimate shots.
Moments like this – when you get to take your time, sit down and really talk with your subjects – is what travel photography is truly about.
We were all a little sad to leave Muong Hum, but bumping into a group of Hà Nhi people as they worked on their harvest, on the drive to our next destination of Y Ty, soon cheered us up.
Y Ty, or “Y Ty the spectacular” as I call it, is always a highlight of my trips northward. Upon arrival, we checked into a gem of a homestay with private rooms. Then we fueled up on a massive lunch before starting out on our descent – into one of the steepest valleys in North Vietnam.
Note: This was also when our descent into madness began. Maybe it was the rapid change in altitude – or maybe it was the strange energy drink I had – but things got a little strange from that moment on!
The entire valley is a maze of rice fields connected by narrow paths. And, luckily for us, it was full of farmers collecting and carrying harvested rice back to the road. Our challenge, as photographers, was to anticipate the farmers’ trajectory, make sense of the paths and try to position ourselves ready to shoot.
It was frustrating and fun in equal measure – but of course, finding interesting compositions is not supposed to be easy, otherwise, anyone could do it! We all got muddy feet… and more than one of us got muddy bums in the process!
As we were leaving clouds began to gather and we enjoyed a frantic five minutes shooting a group of farmers rushing to get their fresh rice sheltered before the deluge began. Fortunately, as the first drops began our driver arrived and we stayed blissfully dry.
It truly was one of these perfect afternoons of photography.
After a hard day of photography, we all felt that we deserved something special for dinner – and our hosts didn’t disappoint. We arrived to a feast of local delights, complemented by far too much rice wine and topped off with a portion of bamboo worms. Because no trip to the north would be complete without bamboo worms!
Day 4: Five Fingers, Flowing Rivers and Workflows
A little worse for wear after the banquet and booze of the night before, we started out a little later on Day 4.
After breakfast, we went to explore a local Hà Nhi village. Here we split up into pairs or wandered alone. I find that it’s fine to shoot as a group in a field full of people working, but if you want to explore a village and get invited into people’s homes, that can’t be done with big groups. At least, it can’t be done with the intimacy and respect it deserves.
For some of the group, this turned out to be their favourite morning of the trip. Why? Because they were forced to overcome the fear of approaching subjects on their own, without myself or Fred as a go-between. It was here that many in the group discovered their potential as travel photographers.
Being able to take a pretty travel picture, when it is served up on a plate in front of you, is one thing. But being able to approach a subject with respect, make them comfortable enough to allow you to take their photo, and then nail the shot, is something else entirely. And this is the essence of what I try to teach on my tours.
Towards the end of our morning, a light rain began to fall and serendipity struck as we were lucky enough to find shelter in the same building as a number of farmers from the village. Sitting together as the rain fell outside we spoke and swapped stories about each of our lives. It’s these simple, unplannable moments that stay with you forever.
After freshening up at the homestay, we said goodbye to Y Ty, boarded our bus again and our trusty driver set course for our next destination – Tả Giàng Phình.
As it was just a short ride, we skipped acquainting ourselves with the homestay and went directly to take photos. After a few days of hardcore people photography, Fred and I both thought a change of pace was necessary and that an afternoon of landscape action would be welcomed by the group. It turned out to be a great decision, as the weather gods smiled down on us from above!
I’ve been to Tả Giàng Phình a number of times on tours before – but this was the first time I had ever seen the famous Five Fingers mountain range. And what a view it was.
From a ridge, we spotted a river streaming through the rocks. And we figured that a certain spot in the river must align with the Five Fingers in the distance. So we scrambled down and set up our tripods midstream to find out if our prediction would prove to be right.
Fortunately, it did.
That evening, over well-deserved beers, we held a group photo review. After which Fred treated us all to an amazing workflow workshop – introducing the group to his way of classifying, editing and selecting his images after a shoot. For once, I sat back and became the student myself.
Day 5: Playing the Layer Game, Chicken Attacks and Drones
We awoke to another full day in glorious Tả Giàng Phình. This is the point in the tour when we – finally! – stopped to catch our breath. We took the time to enjoy the location and its people, to edit our images and to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
We spent most of the morning on more photo reviews, as well as solving a few technical issues the group was having (thanks, Fred!).
After lunch, we wandered through the village. With the rice harvest already completed, most people were in chillout mode. The mood for the entire afternoon was warm and friendly. We were able to capture some great shots of village life and spent some quality time chatting with some elderly Hmong woman.
On the edge of the village, we saw a group of kids wrestling in the hay. As we started taking their photos, some curious villagers showed up and started watching what was going on, too. As they walked towards us in perfect harmony, it allowed us to once again play the layering game. My favourite.
Note: For anyone interested in joining one of our tours in the future, buying a Hmong hat and wearing it with style in the village will guarantee that no one else tries to sell you anything, ever again!
Another note: This was also the day that I experienced my first-ever, full-blown chicken attack. Being the nice, caring guy that I am, when I saw a small chick struggling to escape a ditch, I offered my services. It was then that its mother launched an unprovoked – and frankly, evil – attack upon my unsuspecting person. Fortunately, the assault mainly consisted of feathers and I survived unscathed. Could’ve been worse!
Tả Giàng Phình is a fantastic valley from ground level, but it’s even more spectacular when seen from above – and Fred flew his drone several times throughout the trip. If you have a drone, definitely bring it to North Vietnam; you will not regret it. Just watch out for the local laws on drone flying in Vietnam first!
Day 6: Tea Trees, Karaoke Superstars and More Rice Wine
We spent the morning of Day 6 exploring a hamlet near our accommodation. The people in the area are incredibly friendly and approachable and, once again, that little morning walk provided us with the most amazing photo opportunities.
We took the time to show a genuine interest in what the people were doing. Slowly, they all approached us and like magic compositions, just appeared in front of us.
After packing up and drinking an extra coffee freshly ground and brewed by yours truly, it was time for us to leave the heights of the Hmong Kingdom and drive down to another fantastic area, Tân Uyên.
The valley of Tân Uyên and those surrounding it are home to Tay and Hmong people. The lowlands are used to grow rice, while the hills are filled with beautiful lines of tea trees. This area is totally unexplored and I haven’t seen many photographs from there at all. This place deserves far more attention!
After a small digestive nap at our new hotel, we drove around the valley on the hunt for action. And there was plenty of it to find. Due to the mild weather, the tea fields were a hive of activity, with groups of Hmong women picking up the fresh tea leaves.
It was here, in front of my very eyes, that I saw one of the participants transform into a tea tree!
Further on, we came across another group of Hmong in full rice harvest mode. A friendly old man, full of jokes, helped us to break the ice with the rest of the group. Soon we found ourselves helping them to carry bags of rice. And soon after that, another group arrived with the big rice machine… which is when the real action began.
On that very spot, I saw one of my students bury herself in rice hay for the sake of a good picture. Well played.
To finish a brilliant afternoon, upon arriving back at our hotel, we witnessed one of the most skilled karaoke singers I’ve ever encountered. Some things, once heard, can never be unheard.
That evening we did another photo review – challenging ourselves to have a shot of rice wine every time we saw a great image. We drank a lot of rice wine that night.
Day 7: Early Starts, Epic Sunsets, and Unexpected Friends
Unlike the tours in Central Vietnam, when we are often up way before 5 am, sunrise is much later in the mountainous north. On Day 7, we left our hotel before 7 am to catch the beautiful morning light in the tea fields and to snap the farmers as they started work.
After less than 15 minutes in the van, we came across a sight we could never have planned. Around 50 Hmong men and women were picking leaves in an incredibly picturesque field. The light was beautiful and the tea trees were stunning – unlike some of the scraggly ones we had encountered the day before. It was a morning like no other in terms of photo opportunities.
By 9 am, the light was getting too strong. So we were just heading back toward our waiting van when I spotted a warehouse on the side of the road. I walked closer, curious. As I got nearer, I could see some fantastic light entering the building from the roof.
Voilà. I had stumbled across a tea-processing factory.
Life lesson: Always be curious, follow your instincts and who knows what treasures you will discover?!
The light inside was stunning and the staff were working hard. Finding this factory let us all get a better understanding of the tea-making process and secondly, allowed us to complete a full photo series on the story of tea. We now had pictures of tea growing in the fields, being harvested, processed, and of course, the final product.
After a late breakfast and coffee, we packed up and made tracks for our final destination, Mù Cang Chải.
Well to be exact, not Mù Cang Chải – which has been getting a bit busy with tourists recently – but a village 15km away called La Pán Tẩn.
We arrived at our new homestay, a beautiful wooden Hmong house with some private and some shared rooms. It turned out that our home for the evening was actually the home of the village chief. Which was great, as in my experience the chief always has the best food and rice wine! 🙂
After lunch (accompanied by some excellent Buffalo jerky we bought the day before), we started our walk through the village. The plan was to reach a viewpoint for some sunset shots.
It turned out to be quite a long walk. But what a walk it was!
Every turn of the twisting road unveiled new vistas and increasingly epic photo opportunities. The people we met on the journey were friendly, helpful, and happy to point us in the right direction.
When we finally reached our viewpoint, the mindblowing sunset I had secretly ordered for my group was there waiting for us. Am I the best photo tour guide, or what?!
This, without a doubt, was the best sunset I had ever witnessed in Mù Cang Chải. And that’s saying something!
We hired local motorbike drivers to take us back to the main road. And the memory of the whole group on the back of bikes, winding down the road, with the smell of the rice fields and the dusk colours for company, is something I will never, ever forget.
We arrived back at our homestay and of course, a grandiose dinner was waiting for us. (As was everything else that goes with a grandiose dinner in the north of Vietnam!)
We had one more photo review and then a photographer friend of mine from Hanoi, Bao Khánh (who happened to be in Mù Cang Chải that day), came to meet us. Bao shared with us his philosophy on both photography and the pleasures of travelling.
It was the perfect end to a perfect day of travel photography.
Day 8: Pancakes, Tough Decisions and Hard Goodbyes
Pancakes for breakfast in the mountains? Why not?!
After a decadent, Western-style breakfast, we officially brought the tour to a close with our final review session. We discussed editing techniques and photo selection… and then we all had to choose our best images to present. Which was no easy task. After 8 jam-packed days, visiting countless amazing locations and meeting unforgettable locals, we all had hundreds of favourites.
We took a final stroll around the streets of the village of La Pán Tẩn before saying a warm goodbye to our lovely hosts and starting our drive back to Hanoi.
Reflecting on the past 8 days, I genuinely feel this tour was as close to perfection as possible in terms of locations, photo opportunities, the variety of things we could photograph, luck and, of course, food. This makes it, in my opinion, one of Pics of Asia’s best-ever tours. It was ideal for anyone who wanted to get full, hands-on, travel photography… while having muddy feet!
On top of that, what a group we had!!! This was another of those groups where everyone just got along instantly – and after a few short days, it felt like we had all been friends for a lifetime already.
All joking aside, we came, we captured, we experienced. And these photos and memories will stay with us forever.
Join us in the epic experience in 2020!