Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

Cindy by the water in Bien Hoa, just outside of Saigon.

Hey streettogs, thank you for waiting for this new episode of “Saigon Diary“.

A lot has happened the last week, namely me and Cindy visiting Bien Hoa– a place about an hour outside of Saigon. Cindy’s cousin got married recently, and it was a great time getting to know her father’s side of the family (while of course, eating some delicious food).

I’ve also learned a lot more Vietnamese– and can now hold a pretty basic conversation (a 4-year old is still better than me).

I’m still not sure what I ultimately want out of this “Saigon Diary” series– nor do I expect to really make any good photos while I am here. But like I mentioned before, I want to share some personal thoughts on the trip, my photography, and keep it all as transparent as I can.

Stairwell / Yellow

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

 

This is a photograph of a cousin of a friend here in Saigon. We had some coffee together, then headed down to go home. When he was walking down, I saw a nice composition and started to take photos of him.

As you can see in the contacts, the first 4 shots of him are him looking up and smiling. I didn’t like the cheesiness of the posing, and I preferred the shot of him looking away:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

I like the overall tones of the yellows and the green-blues in the shot, but I can’t help but wish that this shot was taken with a flash (shots #3 and #4 were). The reason is I think the noise in the shot is a bit ugly. I prefer the grain of color film, but I can’t help but stand to think that it is a little ugly in digital. Another reason why I think I ultimately prefer shooting film.

Using my free film presets — I generally like the look overall when shot in good light during the day. But at night, I don’t really like the look of color (prefer digital black and white).

Overall I like the image because of the simple background, the solemn feel to the shot, and the lines in the shot. Also as an interesting note– I am glad I took a bunch of shots, as it was the last shot which was the most interesting (wasn’t sure that he was going to look away).

Frustration shooting digitally / Editing Woes

As a random side-note, one of the big frustrations I’m currently facing is how much of a pain it is in the ass to edit shots (not post-process, but remove and choose the best shots).

I find that with digital the upside is I take a lot more shots of a scene, which gives me a higher likelihood of getting a good shot.

The downside with digital is that I end up sometimes taking too many shots– a lot of throwaway shots. This means I waste a lot more time looking at images. And editing is a pain in the ass.

One thing I love about film is that the editing process is generally easier– in the sense that I take fewer photos and each photo tends to be of higher overall quality. For some editing tips, you can read my article: 15 Tips How Street Photographers Can Better Edit Their Work.

But anyways– let us continue.

Cindy / Thought Bubble

At VLS (the Vietnamese language learning school we are currently at) I was with Cindy– and saw this interesting word bubble behind her. I ended up taking a bunch of shots of her, at different angles, distances, and at different moments. Here are all 32 photos I shot of her:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

My favorite one was the one in the middle, of her adjusting her neck:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

It certainly isn’t the most flattering photo of her– but I quite like how is it an unusual pose, and how her neck seems to mirror that of the thought bubble.

I don’t like the red roses coming out of her head, or the cut-off hook on the table.

But I kind of do like this more gritty green-blue hue, I think it is a suitable “look” for the Saigon Diary series– as I feel it reflects the gritty feel of Saigon.

Cindy / Watching TV Shows

Here is another series of photos I took of Cindy in our hotel room, some with a flash and some without a flash.

It is a moment where Cindy is overwhelmed with her research, Vietnamese studies, and everything else she worries about. It is a moment she has to just relax a bit and catch up on her TV shows:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

This is my favorite shot:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

I like the angle of the shot, how relaxed she looks, and all the details of the stickers in her laptop. Not the most interesting shot, but a good “filler” shot for the series of images I’m doing on Cindy in Saigon.

Spring rolls / Learning Vietnamese

Here are some random photos of me making spring rolls– with one of the directors at the Vietnamese language school. Did I mention the food here is awesome?

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture 1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

But as a side note, learning Vietnamese while here in Saigon has been incredibly enriching.

I personally want to learn Vietnamese because I want to better communicate with Cindy’s family members. Her family is quite fluent in English– but I feel you can really build a stronger bond and connection when you know their language.

Vietnamese is an incredibly difficult language to learn starting off– because of all the 6 different tones you need to learn. For example, if you say a word with a rising intonation or a lowering intonation– the word will mean something totally different.

But now that I have built a somewhat solid grasp of Vietnamese– I can just talk to random waiters in Cafe’s and restaurants– and they seem to love the amusement of seeing a random Korean guy speaking the local language. They smile a lot at me, give me better service, and even teach me more Vietnamese.

I hope to learn more in my few weeks here.

Coffee Culture

One thing I find absolutely fascinating in Saigon (and Vietnam) is the coffee / cafe culture. It came from when the French colonized Vietnam (as well as amazing Banh Mi sandwiches– which is a hybrid of local Vietnamese food sandwiched in-between a baguette). With the coffee– it is Nestle with condensed milk which makes Vietnamese iced coffee pretty amazing (the ca phe sua da).

I love how the Vietnamese are pretty chill– a lot of time is spent just chatting with friends and family. Nothing feels rushed or hurried– unlike American culture where we want to eat quickly and efficiently, then hurriedly head home. It is pretty common to spend just 2 hours at a cafe with a friend, chatting, and just doing nothing. Sometimes it makes me feel impatient– because I feel like I always need to do something and be productive. But I am learning how to be better and just relaxing and enjoying myself.

One thing that does annoy me a bit is that everyone at cafes always seem to be on their smartphones. For example, you will see a bunch of people hanging out together at first, chatting, then suddenly everyone retreats into their smartphones. It is quite the paradox to me– why spend time going on Facebook when you are right across your “real” friends? As a personal rule, I try not to check my smartphone a lot when out with friends (but like everyone else, I succumb to the temptation a lot).

Anyways– when I was in Bien Hoa with Cindy– we were at this one hip cafe for young kids there. It is interesting– because all the kids there are pretty much well-off and pampered by this “leisure culture.” A coffee there is around $1.50, which is cheap by American standards– but really expensive in Vietnam. The average college-educated worker only makes around $400 a month. And a person working in a factory earns only 5 cents an hour.

So anyways, I see a bunch of these kids on their smartphones, and I was thinking to myself: maybe I can take these photos to critique this kind of behavior. I take a bunch of shots:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee CultureMy favorite shot is the one below– as I like how I got the guy in the background taking a chug from his coffee.

And in the foreground, you have the girl totally buried in her iPhone– and the girls on the left just chatting and relaxing.

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

The shot isn’t all that interesting but it might be a start-off on focusing on the coffee/cafe culture here. So it might end up as a filler image for a “cafe” project, but as a single image I would ditch it.

Cindy by the Water

While in Bien Hoa, I went to an amusement park by the water with Cindy. She was standing by the water, and I thought it might make a nice portrait of her. I took a bunch of shots at ISO 3200:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

Here I broke a personal rule — I shot these intending them to be in color, and converted them into black and white after.

Why did I do this? I wanted to just give Cindy a nice single image to perhaps use a profile picture on Facebook or something. I felt black and white better conveyed the mood of the scene, and honestly– the colors just looked pretty inconsistent here. The lighting on her face was really weird in color, as there was this green cast that went over her forehead:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

Below were my favorites in the short-list of her in black and white:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

My favorite shot of her– looking straight into the camera. I like the slight blur of the shot, and a little bit of the messiness of her hair on her face.

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

A shot of her brushing her hair. I like how you can see her clearer here,  but I still prefer the messier look of the prior shot.

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

Cindy told me this was her favorite shot. I like the mystery of the shot, but I still prefer the eye contact of the prior shots.

Selfies

A selfie of me and Cindy to personally remember (Cindy laughed at this shot and told me I look like a thumb). I love the natural light here, and the catchlights in our eyes:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

Another selfie I took was in Cindy’s family’s living room:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

I took a bunch of shots, and this one came out the cleanest. I like the framing of the shot, the greens in the shot, and maybe the metaphor that I’m going down some forest path?

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

Wedding

Like I mentioned earlier, we attended Cindy’s cousin’s wedding. Here are some shots from the event:

I actually gave my x100s to Cindy- and she snapped this shot. I actually quite like it a lot- the juxtaposition of the reds vs greens, the pensive look in her face. I wish it was more centered (with the leading lines going to her head), and the right side of the frame is a bit empty. But I still like the colors and the mood:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

A photo of me and Cindy posing outside of her family’s house:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

Outside, I also saw a little girl looking out, I took a bunch of shots, she turned around, then ran away:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

I like shot #4, as the slight motion blur of the girl’s hair, the curve in her hair, and the colors of the red in her outfit against the chairs:

1x1.trans Saigon Diary #5: Travels to Bien Hoa, Learning Vietnamese, and Coffee Culture

I still wish I saw more of her face or her body language. It is more a visual shot and about the colors than anything else.

Conclusion

Overall I have a lot of doubts about my “Saigon Diary” project. I haven’t been taking as many shots as I would like (most of my time is spent in the classroom learning Vietnamese).

So I think ultimately I don’t expect to get any really great shots in Saigon. Honestly, I haven’t taken any photos here that I’m really proud of. I think a lot of it is because even 2 months in total isn’t a long time to make good photos. If I end up taking 1-2 shots I like from the end of the trip, I will be happy.

For now, I will continue working on these blog posts as a kind of visual diary — and a way for me to remember my trip, and hopefully this “behind the scenes” look can also be helpful in terms of sharing my working process.

Thank you again for tuning in– you can see all here are the past “Saigon Diary” entries below:

Also as a side note, I am giving a free street photography talk at Hoa Sen Nguyen Van Trang campus this Friday from 6-9pm. You can see all the details here on Facebook.

Upcoming Street Photography Workshops

If you want to conquer your fears and meet new peers, join me in Stockholm, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, NYC, Istanbul & More!

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  • http://mbs-p-b.com/ Mike Bates

    Another great entry Eric. Really loving the more personal side of this series; I like hearing about your trip, what it’s like in Vietnam, what you think of everything and what you and Cindy are up to. It’s cool to hear about your thought process behind shots as well, but I think both parts are equally inspiring for me.

    Please do keep the posts up, they help me want to get out and shoot street even more!
    ~Mike

  • tim

    when people start talking about taking too many shots with digital and that with film , they slow down, I always hear myself thinking …. shoot your digital with a film mindset …. (smile) Hope all is going well

  • Guest

    I think this was intended to be posted on your facebook and was posted here by mistake. You’re welcome! :-)

  • Jeremy

    Hi Eric. . .thanks for continuing to share this series. it is interesting to read about your thought process on your selections. are you continuing to use the X100s for most of these??

  • Paetroz

    Eric I think 2 months is a lot of time to get some good shots unless the language classes are taking up that prime time. Are you looking at other photographer’s Vietnam experiences for some inspiration that could spark some ideas? I’m not seeing much of the unique character of Vietnam in what you are sharing and it seems like any of those shared could have been shot anywhere. You might be avoiding the cliched subjects but at the same time missing some opportunities to explore them in a new way from your perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.HofmanPhotos.com JH

    At the risk of stating the obvious, ditch Cindy for a day and go out and make some great photos. After reading your diary entries it sounds like you guys are joined-at-the-hip most of the time…

  • http://instagram.com/mrgubrz MrGubrz

    i am SO jelly! i LOVE the way vietnamese sounds. my previous hair stylist was from vietnam, an older woman. i always signed up for her because she was SO talkative! it could be fairly difficult to understand what she was saying in english, but it always sounded more beautiful! and shes toss in small exclamatory phrases in the midst of her stories in vietnamese. im shocked at the $400 for a college grad per month wages! it makes me think i could save up for a few months and go live there for a month! fernweh! have fun! keep up the diary! i really think its great! especially with how much you get to travel and do things that most of us just want to do! thanks for sharing!!!

  • Michael

    Eric, I think your series is really great and breaking new ground. It is especially *because* you don’t have the time/nerve/mindset to take the perfect photos on this trip that one is able to see so many facets of your work process. I generally agree that it is alway good to edit, edit, edit and only show the best of the best. But your entries are about the process and are supposed to be educational (I guess). Well, they are. Plus, they add some biography. So I would encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing and let people who want something else go somewhere else in the net. Thanks for your generosity of sharing!

    - Michael

  • Noreen

    Hi Eric, may I ask why do you put down the article about Fujifilm XT1?

  • slanchez

    what do you think of trying some b/w days? it might make for an interesting post. people feel like they have to shoot in either b/w or color, never both…consistency is all…or something. but consistency isn’t just format, it’s feeling…maybe b/w would free you up a bit…that thought bubble shot i thought would have been a lot stronger in b/w…actually a few of your shots would be. new culture, new language, new experiences over a long period of time… b/w might simplify things, free you up…just a thought. like seeing your process. brave to show it for all its good and bad. impressed by the presence of mind to be able to translate it into something close to real time.

  • Richard Hankin

    Your conclusion is spot on….Cindy centric photos has become your fallback position after a long day at school and your self inflicted obligation to post something….I was hoping to see more people photos but alas…..

  • Vedran Perse

    Am I missing something or are not choosing our favourite shot of the day? Anyway
    mine suggestion is actually not yours but Cindy’s shot of little girl at the wedding.
    I actually like obvious imperfections ( underlined by you – you are a true gentleman )
    So maybe you will follow one of earlier advices to ditch Cindy but for different reasons, competition is getting closer

  • http://www.simbius26.blogspot.com/ Brian Hinesley

    eric i find it too common for you to overwork a scene and you’re taking too much time grabbing the shot, honestly 2-3 shots from different angles and move on! It feels like paparazzi shooting where you just linger and fire shot after shot..

  • Ian Boys

    Any more Saigon Diary? I was enjoying it.

  • Nathan

    Hey Eric, I think what you are doing is amazing! You’re taking time out of your trip to share with us the things you see and experience and the photos that you take. I see a lot of criticism in the comment sections of your post, but honestly, for lack of a better word, you should just “DGAF” them. It’s your vacation/trip so you should enjoy it and do whatever you want and everyone should be greatful that you are sharing these posts with us. Keep up the awesome work!