Saigon Diary #1: First Day in Vietnam

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Saigon, 2014. Last photo of my first day in Saigon, in an elevator. Full story later in the article.

You can download my free Lightroom 5 film street photo presets which I used to process these photos. I used the “XT-1 v2” preset on most of these.

Hey what’s up streettogs– this is Eric Kim reporting live from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam. After a lovely 14-hour flight from Vancouver and a 4-hour connecting flight from Hong Kong, my girlfriend Cindy and I made it safely here!

Today over some strong Vietnamese coffee with Cindy– she helped me come up with a good idea. I wanted to document my time here in Saigon, and also document Cindy’s experience here. I am going to include the contact sheets as well — and take you behind the scenes. I hope you enjoy this journey with me!

A little bit of background: Cindy’s family fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, and Cindy was actually born in a refugee camp in Malaysia (in a refugee camp in a small island called Pulau Bidong. After Cindy was born in the refugee camp, she was able to get a church to sponsor her family to America. Since then, they have built a prosperous Vietnamese restaurant called “Long Hai” in Tustin, California. This is Cindy’s first time back to Saigon since around 5 years ago. Therefore this is a very personal experience for Cindy.

This is also my first time to Vietnam, and I am excited for the next two months we are staying here. Some of my goals include learning Vietnamese, more time writing for the blog, and also a small photography project in Saigon. I have tentatively called the project: “Saigon Diary”.

For the next two months I am going to post some of my progress here, and be as transparent about the project as much as possible. Which means, I will post work that I don’t necessarily think is the best– but hope to critique my own work so you can learn from the process.

I initially thought I was going to shoot the project on Kodak Portra 400 film (I bought 100 rolls of it), but for the purposes of this project– I am going to shoot it digitally. For the trip I also brought the Fujifilm X-T1 and x100s, and I think ultimately I will stick with the x100s for most of the shooting. Why not the X-T1? Well, I prefer the smallness, lightweight, and compactness of the x100s over the X-T1 (even though the X-T1 has a faster and more accurate autofocus system). In the long run, I will probably end up using both cameras– but we will see.

Will use these rolls of film for my on-going "Suits" and "Colors" series.
Will use these rolls of film for my on-going “Suits” and “Colors” series.

Another reason I want to shoot digitally is because I find it easier to work on documentary projects with digital. It allows me to review the images every night, to better discover a narrative I am trying to build. I think with traditional “street photography” projects– I prefer to do the editing at the very end (I currently have around 100 undeveloped rolls of Portra 400 for my “Suits” and “Colors” project as well as other images).

Day 1: Arrival

The flight from Vancouver to Saigon wasn’t too bad. Even though the flight was 14 hours long and the connecting flight from Hong Kong was 4 hours– it went by quickly. Movies, talking with Cindy, and reading books on the iPad helped the time fly by. When we arrived from the airport, we quickly got up to our room and passed out.

Morning– I wake up naturally at 6:00am (why can’t I always wake up this early) and go to the shabby gym and do some pull-downs to stay in shape. I wake Cindy up, and we head over to our all-you can eat breakfast downstairs. I’m quite hungry, and I bring along my Fujifilm X-T1 with the 27mm f/2.8 pancake lens to breakfast (you never know when photo opportunities might lie ahead).

I then walk inside, and see an interesting stage. Some nice and colorful pink roses and a cake. Perhaps a wedding, or some sort of party? I then see a couple eating a meal in the bottom right of the frame. I take one photo without a flash, and then I wait until the guy to take a bite of his food (might make it more interesting?) I quickly pop up the flash, and take a photo. Boom at least I got the “decisive moment” of him eating his food.

The shot itself isn’t too interesting, I like the pinks and reflections in the frame. But the man in the bottom right corner blends in too much with the black speaker box. Also the far right of the frame is empty. The reflections in the far left of the frame are interesting, but I wish I could see more photos. I’ll ditch this one.

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I then see a guy to the right of me– and think to myself: maybe I can add his head into the frame to add some depth. I’m not sure if I will make an interesting photo, but I work the scene from different angles:

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Unfortunately none of the photos are very interesting. I ditch all of them.

I end up grabbing a table with Cindy– I see a nice little fake red rose, and she poses for me:

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I then promptly go get tons of food (after all, it is a free buffet) and pile on the food:

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The food was amazing, I ate all of it and had seconds. (Note to self: take better food photos next time).

To my left, I see a woman and some mirrors. I think it might be an interesting moment, and I take a photo:

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The idea for the shot was good, but execution didn’t work out. ISO was too low (800) — needed to be at 1600 to prevent motion blur inside. Also, regarding the shot- I like how I got the woman’s reflection in the middle– but chopped off her hand in the bottom left corner, and she as a subject isn’t that interesting. She looks a bit boring. Maybe I wish I got more eye contact. Cindy’s expression on the far right is a bit awkward too. Ditch.

After breakfast we need to make some photocopies of our documents. We go to the business center, and I see a woman working at a table. I immediately love the picture frame above her, and her busy in her work. I like environmental portraits, so I take a few photos:

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Here is the photo I like the best — because she is lifting up the papers:

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Still the shot is a bit boring– but might try to shoot more of these indoor “environmental portraits”. Ditch.

Cindy and I then go upstairs to check out the gym. Near the elevator, I see a good potential scene. Nice background and girl on the far right. I work the scene:

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One of the photos towards the end isn’t bad:

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I like how she is looking left, which leads your eyes to the left of the frame. I like the juxtaposition of colors– the cool blues against the touches of orange (boat in the frame) and the orange of the woman’s face. I like her crossed arms, and leaning against the door. A pretty good pose. Perhaps the story the viewer can suggest is the woman is waiting for someone to come rescue her? Or something cheesy like that. I’ll tentatively pick this photo for now.

I go down some stairs with Cindy back to my room. I like the nice spiral composition of the stairs, I take a photo of Cindy- and ask her to look into the camera and smile. (Note to self)– ask Cindy not to smile in photos, looks too posed. I like the composition though:

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When we are back in the room, I want to take a dramatic portrait of Cindy looking out. I ask her to stand next to the window, and I take different photos and ask her to move her head slightly different ways:

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I probably like the last one the best, the look of longing in her eyes, and her hand gesture:

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I quite like this portrait of Cindy– I like the softness of the light, her hand softly touching her face, and the placement of her body (with the horizontal framing). I’ll keep onto this image.

I also want to take a detail photo (maybe it can work into the future edit of my “Saigon Diary” project). I take a photo of the curtains looking outside:

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Not the most interesting photo in the world. A “maybe” photo– I’m sure I’ll get some better version of this later. Ditch probably.

We’re in the hallway about to head outside to go explore, and I see these interesting paintings in the hallway. I try to make an interesting photo of it with Cindy in it. I use a flash– and quite like the juxtaposition of Cindy against the background– and the colors:

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We go down the escalator, and I also get a self-portrait of myself and her. I quite like the diagonal composition and the slight look of despair in her face:

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We leave the hotel and we start wandering around. I come upon this surreal scene, and immediately jump to my feet and start taking photos:

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I was trying to make a funny surreal image (the man in the background with the legs in the foreground). This is the best one, but it is a bit too cliche. Ditch.

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I come upon some nice scenes without any people in them. I like the colors and textures of this setup:

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Cindy and I walk a bit more, and I see her checking her nails for some reason. A candid shot I really like of her, I like the colors: green in far left, her blue shirt, and the red pole:

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I also come upon more nice colorful scenes– like the green tree and the blue background:

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I see another interesting scene, a girl pushing some office furniture outside. I’m a bit far away– but I take some photos anyways for fun:

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In the second frame, I get totally lucky and a guy enters my scene. I like the depth in the resulting photo (even though I didn’t intend to get the guy in the motorbike inside):

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I like how the man is looking directly at me, and how the furrows in his forehead match that of the gated background. I also like the woman mysteriously pushing the office chair. The top left of the frame is too empty, and the far top right is a bit too cluttered. Not great, but will hold onto the image for now.

Down the block, I see an interesting possible juxtaposition shot with a man and a poster. I work the scene, and wait until the man looks up:

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I actually prefer the shot when the guy is looking straight at me:

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A bit too obvious of a juxtaposition– the man on the bottom looks a bit too boring. I’ll probably ditch this one.

Another nice photo without any people– I like the alternating colors of the chairs just sitting outside:

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Cindy and I then break for lunch, obligatory food photos follow (it was damn good):

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Towards the end of my meal with Cindy, I end up taking a bunch of photos of Cindy. I end up taking one of Cindy I like, with her looking away from the camera, arms crossed, and nice contrast between the yellow of the background and her blue shirt. I also like the straw of her cup pointing to the left of the frame. Will hold onto this for now.

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We go for a walk to find a SIM card for her, and no luck. We enjoy our time walking the streets of Saigon, and the hustle and bustle of the place. We really love all the coffee shops here (quite upscale) and extremely affordable. Not only that, but the restaurants are quite nice, and only cost 2-3 dollars a meal.

It then starts pouring on the way home, so we duck into a coffee shop and start talking, and writing down ideas.

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Cindy has an idea of doing a project of photographing surfaces during our trip. She is using the Ricoh GRD V – and wants to shoot it square-crop (she shot a project in Marseille with her Hasselblad before– called “Take what you need.”) I help her setup her camera on 1:1 crop, and I think it is something I might be interested in doing.

On the way home, I end up taking some 1:1 photos (being inspired by Cindy):

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DSCF7768 Ultimately I prefer the 3:2 aspect ratio on the Fuji’s, so I switch back.

We go back to our room, and we are tired from the day. Cindy needs to put in her eye medicine and rest her eyes for a bit. She lies on the bed, and looks like an angel. I quickly run and get my camera and take a bunch of photos:

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For one of the shots (shooting with the X-T1) I hold the camera super high, and use the LCD swivel screen to frame her. I prefer this high perspective the best. I like the humor and the religious overtones of the image, I’ll keep this for now:

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Later, she takes out her laptop and does work on the bed. I take a photo of it, another nice detail shot for the potential future project:

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A bit later, we head out to dinner. The X-T1 is a good size, but I decide to bring the x100s instead because it is lighter. Perhaps I will shoot with mostly the x100s for the rest of the trip.

On the way to dinner, I see an interesting poster outside of a beer hall, and get Cindy in the extreme foreground. A strange shot, but I like it for some odd reason:

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I get a simple dinner, veggie and pork soup:

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On the way home, we go into the escalator, and I see this amazingly dressed woman. I quickly turn on the x100s, and for some reason it is on the LCD view mode (probably from photographing my food earlier). I then quickly snap a few photos, and notice that Cindy is in my shot. I move around trying to get Cindy out of the background, and then at the last shot, the woman looks up at me. I’m really close to her, around an armlength away. I pretend I’m doing something with the menus of the LCD of the x100s, and avoid eye contact with the woman. She walks out:

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I end up taking a shot I like. I like the intensity of the proximity, the eye contact, her reflection in the top right mirror, and her face blurred in the far left of the frame.

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Below are all the photos I end up holding in my “Saigon Diary” collection in Lightroom. These are all ‘maybe’s for now:

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I want to somehow stitch Cindy into the narrative of my “Saigon Diary” — but she will probably have to be a separate project from my street snaps. I also am not sure if my final edit for my “Saigon Diary” will include both people shots and photos without people. Not sure where the food photos will fit– perhaps will just keep those for personal memories.

Thanks for tuning into this first Siagon Diary episode– lots more to come :)

You can download my free Lightroom 5 film street photo presets which I used to process these photos. I used the “XT-1 v2” preset on most of these.

By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher