Saigon Diary #2: Learning Vietnamese, Seeing Common Threads, and Triangles

DSCF7952-2 copy

Due to the positive feedback from the first “Saigon Diary #1” I will see if I can do daily diary entries.

Thank you guys also for the feedback on the new blog design. I’ve been wanting to change my blog to a “responsive design” — that would look great across smartphones, tablets, and computers. I also made the change from a 2-column blog to a 1-column blog, to create a better reading experience for you guys. The 1-column design allows me to upload larger images, and also larger text.

I liked having the links on the right column, but now you can either find the articles in the “Start here” page or the “Masters” tab on top. I will play around with the design more in the upcoming weeks. Would love to hear your feedback on the new design in the comments below. Please let me know what you would like about it, and what you would like to see me add/change.

Anyways moving on– today I woke up relatively early again (around 7am). I wish I could wake up that consistently everyday back in the states (I usually get up at around 10am). I did some bodyweight squats in the room to get pumped up for the day, and also to prepare myself for breakfast.

I woke up Cindy, and we did some work in the room before heading down. I took a photograph of her at her workstation on the bed:


I quite like the horizontal framing of the image– and how I have the side-on perspective of her with her crazy setup. This might be good for my documentary series of Cindy. I also like small details in the frame, like her smartphone in the bottom right corner. I also like the vitamins in the background. Unfortunately the shot is a bit out-of-focus and blurry, but it doesn’t bother me too much.

I then ponder to myself which camera to shoot with today. I really liked shooting with the x100s, but thought I’d try something for fun: mount my 35mm f/2 Leica lens on the Fujifilm X-T1:

xt1 leica-1

I strapped the X-T1 over my neck and headed down to breakfast, and already immediately started to regret it. The weight of the Summicron is quite heavy– far more than the super lightweight 27mm f/2.8 lens.

So why did I try out this setup? Well, I was feeling ‘artsy’ and wanted to try shooting with a manually focusing lens. I also thought because I’d focus on photographing Cindy, I would have fun and try experimenting with around a ~50mm lens (after the 1.5x crop of the X-T1).

However after just taking a few photos on the way down, it didn’t feel right. Even though the focus peaking on the X-T1 is quite nice– I feel that having a smaller pancake on the X-T1 (like the 27mm f/2.8) made more sense. The camera was built to be quick and accurate with autofocusing– so why was I using a manual focusing lens? I also had some difficulty using the pop-up flash with the manual aperture settings, so I ended taking off the 35mm Leica lens off the X-T1 and put it back on my Leica MP.

Anyways– I go and eat breakfast, and I start chatting with one of the chefs there who cooks my eggs for me. I ask him to make 4 eggs– and he has to call someone over to make sure that he heard my order right:


While I’ve been here — I’ve been trying to speak more Vietnamese. I find the best way to learn has been to just talk it with people, make mistakes, and have a good laugh here and there.

So I start chatting it up with the chef– saying his food is delicious and that he is a handsome guy. He laughs a ton:


Now the photograph isn’t interesting by any regards– but I’m including it to make a point: Whenever I travel, I try to make a point to learn some phrases in the local language. It really helps me connect with the locals more, and it leads to laughs, good fun, and better communication. Having him laugh put a huge smile on my face.

Not only that, but when breakfast was closing– he walked all the way over to the table where I was sitting and asked if we wanted more Pho (beef noodle soup). I doubt we would have gotten that kind of service if I didn’t interact and make him laugh earlier.

Here is also a shot of Cindy taking photos of our food over breakfast:


Cindy is trying to document all the table surfaces during our trip — shooting it all 1:1 format on the Ricoh GRD V. She also wants the perspectives to be consistent– head up looking down. Hope to share some of her images along the way.

Cindy also takes a photo of me super excited for breakfast:


We finish our meal– and walk around the downstairs area. We walk in the middle of a courtyard, and I see some interesting reflections in a window. I decide to try to shoot some self-portraits. I take a self-portrait I like:


I’m quite interested in shooting self-portraits. Being inspired by Lee Friedlander and his self-portraits, I always try to shoot a “selfie” whenever I have the chance.

What do I like about self-portraits? Well, they are a way for me to remember myself being in a certain place. Also when I don’t have any interesting subjects in an area– I always have myself to photograph.

I like this photo above because I like the colors, reflections, and the outline of my head in the center frame– with myself in the center. I like small details like the three stars on the top-right of the frame, and the Vietnamese boat in the middle of the frame, and chairs on the bottom of the frame. This shot inspires me to shoot more self-portraits during the trip.

We go back up to the room– and I take another self-portrait of myself and of Cindy working (by now I ditched the X-T1 and switched to the x100s again):


I always love shooting through windows and playing with reflections. For all of the shots like this– I always use the EVF (electronic viewfinder) in the x100s to frame more accurately, and see what I am going to get. The optical viewfinder is great when you’re shooting people moving– but for stationary subjects, I prefer the EVF.

I then sit down, work on my computer– turn around and see Cindy slouched over. I take a quick photograph– and I like how she is hunched over, and looks exasperated. I feel the emotions come out in this shot of her looking overwhelmed– this might work well for my “Cindy” series.


I take a few more of her after the first one, but the candid moment and magic is gone. It reminds me of how the candid photos that aren’t posed are often the best ones:


We do some more work in the room, and then we start getting hungry. We find a place to go out and eat, so we hit the streets.

While walking in the streets– I try to avoid taking the obvious touristy snapshot in Saigon, of people riding motorcycles in the streets. However the difficult thing is: how do I take a non-cliched photo in Vietnam?

I decide I will just try to stick to my guts– and find interesting colors (as I usually do back home). I really love the x100s for the colors it gives me, and I see this potential scene:

I see a nice blue wall, and a woman with a colorful hat and two colorful plastic seats beneath her.

I have the x100s set to “P” mode– which means the aperture is in “A” mode and the shutter-speed is in “A” mode. This causes the camera to automatically choose the aperture and shutter speed for me. I have the ISO set pretty high, at ISO 800– to make sure that I will have a relatively small f-stop (around 5.6) and a relatively fast shutter speed (at least 1/200th of a second). I have the autofocus set in the middle, and the EVF on (so I can frame more accurately around the edges). I start taking a series of images, getting close, and trying to photograph it more from a diagonal perspective to remove some of the background clutter:


Let me critique some of the shots below:


The first shot, I am a bit too far away. There is too much blue wall on the far left– and too much dead space on the far right. Also the motorcycles on the top of the frame are distracting.

I keep working my way closer and turning my camera, and finally until she looks up at me:


This shot works a lot better now, because I have a stronger diagonal composition with her– and eliminated most of the clutter on the top, left, and right of the frame. I also like how she is looking up at me, with her hands crossed.

The colors in the shot are nice– but it isn’t too interesting. I take a few shots from the side head-on:


While I like the eye contact, the background is now too cluttered. The shot before works better than this one– but both aren’t terribly interesting. Will ditch these shots.

We keep walking, and we walk by a Catholic high school. I like the juxtaposition of the graffiti, little plants, and power lines in these shots:

DSCF7881 DSCF7885 DSCF7887

None of them are terribly interesting– but taking these kinds of shots keeps my eyes sharp.

A little bit later, I come across a cardboard cutout of this woman with shopping bags:


I then immediately think of these two photos I took about a year ago:

86080004 Colors-10

It makes me think to myself: hmm– perhaps a “headless” series might be a good project. I make a mental note of this.

We finally find the place for lunch, and we eat:


One thing Saigon has been crazy with is the weather. Every afternoon, it starts pouring like mad out of nowhere. At the end of our meal, we hear the thunder and then head for cover, and order a coffee inside:


One thing I will have to say: Vietnamese coffee is absolutely phenomenal. I am a big of a coffee nerd (I love good espressos) and Vietnamese coffee is definitely up there. If you never had Vietnamese coffee, it is extremely concentrated (and very strong in caffeine). Vietnamese people love their coffee a lot (and drink a lot of it too). There is even a phrase in Vietnamese which literally means you are “high off caffeine”.

We chill inside and do some work until the rain stops.

Afterwards, we look for some housing. We are currently staying at a hotel for about a week, then plan to move into an apartment for about a month. We find this one place all the way at the top floor, and I take a few photos looking out. Nice view:

DSCF7924 DSCF7926

I remind myself to take these landscape shots– as they add a nice ‘sense of place’ for a project.

We walk around outside, and I see an interesting possible scene. A man on the bottom right corner, a mannequin in the left of the frame, and horses on top. Nice little triangle composition:



I take a bunch of shots, and try working the scene from different angles and moments:


In one of the middle shots, I see a guy pop out from the bottom left– I instinctively take a shot:


Now looking at the shot, I like the placement of the figures in the frame– the man’s head in the bottom left corner, horses on top right, and other man on bottom right. And for me the ‘cherry on top’ is the bride mannequin in the yellow in the center of the frame. It creates a rather pleasing triangle composition too:

DSCF7952-2 copy

This is probably my favorite shot of the bunch. It is relatively clean, and is kind of “Alex Webb“-like in terms of the layers and framing. Only thing I find a bit distracting in the shot is the red moped in the middle of the frame. But still I like this– it might be good. I “pick” the shot for now.

We end up meeting a talented local photographer named Gin Tran, who shoots mostly weddings and portrait work– along with some epic music videos. We hang out with him at his studio, and have some more coffee with him. A few hours pass, and we go to dinner. He takes a photo of me and Cindy together:


Cindy engages in lively conversation with Gin, and also face-palms herself (she tends to do that a lot):

DSCF7991 DSCF7996


We end up having an epic meal together:


While we are grubbing away, I see a young couple to my left– both totally glued to their iPhones. This is something that always ticks me off– why do young couples always stay glued to their smartphones all the time, and not spend quality time with one another?

I admit it too– I am quite addicted to my smartphone. So for the duration of my time in Vietnam, I vowed to keep it locked up in my room. And man, has it been liberating. I’ve been using a small Moleskine to jot down ideas, and found it to help me be more creative.

Anyways, I take a bunch of photos of this young couple on their phones, at different moments and angles:


I think the best shot is near the middle:


I quite like the shot because you can see the blue of the iPhone screen going into the girl’s face, and the other guy hunched over, also on his iPhone. Both are totally oblivious to one another. Perhaps this can be part of my Vietnam series: young people glued to their devices?

Anyways– that’s it for it folks. It is 12:37am and I’m pretty exhausted and ready to pass out. Thanks for joining this journey, hope I can keep up with this daily diary!