Currently at “The Coffee House” in Hanoi, and really caffeinated (just had a double-shot of espresso, and some of Cindy’s iced coffee).
Being here in Hanoi is absolutely wonderful. We are currently staying at the Hanoi Palace City Hotel (which we thought was a 4-star, but more like a 2-star), but still the place is clean, has great service, and in a great location.
I just want to use this diary to share some of my first impressions of Hanoi, and how daily life is here:
We are currently living in a hotel, and man — living in a hotel is lovely. We are paying around $15 a night, and have the convenience of being in a great location in Hanoi, getting free breakfast (table service), and our room and sheets cleaned every day.
Which made me realize— how much of our daily lives are spent buying groceries, cleaning up, cooking, and cleaning up? One of the benefits of living in a hotel is that I have more mental energy saved (not cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping) in order to focus on creative work.
Of course not everyone has this luxury. But one of the benefits of being in Vietnam is that as a foreigner, I am blessed enough to be able to afford this type of lifestyle.
Cindy and I are currently looking for serviced apartments in Hanoi, and unfortunately we won’t get free breakfast anymore (one of the best perks of living in a hotel). However, we expect the benefit of living in a serviced apartment (meaning it gets cleaned for us) is that we will have a little more room, stability, and can guarantee that we will stay in the same place for a long time.
I also figure that because meals here are so cheap ($2 on average for lunch), we can eat all of our meals outside. Which means we don’t need to spend time grocery shopping and cooking. While I do love to cook when we’re back in America, I will enjoy my time here in Vietnam to experience more local restaurants, flavors, foods, and experiences.
Goals while living in Vietnam
When my friends asked me, “What do you plan on doing in Vietnam?” I wasn’t quite sure. I knew that I wanted to do some blogging, video making, reading, meditating, and having new experiences.
However I think at the end of my trip, one of my biggest goals is to improve my Vietnamese. And I’m glad to say, it has been off to a solid start.
2 years ago when we spent the summer in Saigon, I took Vietnamese classes (4 hours intensive 1:1). This helped me learn the fundamentals (basic verbs, conjunctions, and nouns). And with this basic toolkit, I’ve been able to have basic conversations with locals here, and also the ability to ask them to help me when I don’t understand. And of course, the best benefit is having Cindy (she’s completely fluent in Vietnamese) — so she has been teaching me a lot of words along the way.
One of the reasons I realized I love about learning local languages is that it helps me connect deeper on an emotional and spiritual level with people. Being an extrovert, a sociologist, and a teacher— I value social interaction above most things. And if I can’t speak the local language, my limit to connect with people is extremely limited.
Which makes me realize— my interest in connecting with people, being social, and communicating is even stronger than my desire to photograph. If anything, photography is a tool that that helps me connect with people (this is why I like to ask for permission for “street portraits”).
We’re in Hanoi for 9 months, then Saigon for 6 months— then around 6-9 months in France (split between Marseille and Paris). I also hope to learn French while I’m there.
Street photography in Hanoi
I first visited Hanoi 2 years ago when we spent the summer in Saigon. And I have to say — I really love the city and the people.
However for the most part (at least for the last 2 days), I haven’t had a super-strong urge to photograph. I always have my camera on me, and ready to take photos, but I still find myself shooting more photos of Cindy (as part of the #cindyproject). I’m almost treating Hanoi like I’m in the suburbs— focusing on photographing Cindy (and not the local people).
I feel one of the difficult things about shooting street photography in Hanoi (as well as Vietnam and any place in Southeast asia) is that we are tempted (as Westerners) to photograph the cliches— the street hawkers, the rice patty hats, and the motorbikes. I want to make more “unique” images while I’m here— to try to photograph like a local (instead of a foreigner).
I really haven’t made any photos of locals that I am proud of (yet)— but I’m not too worried. I feel that I don’t want to rush or force the process.
I also have been experimenting shooting color and black and white— and I will probably stick to monochrome (as I ended up converting all my color photos from Saigon 2 years ago into black and white).
While I love color— I feel that black and white better suits the gritty feel of Vietnam for me. I feel that the black and white helps bring harmony to the chaos in the streets, and to also bring a sense of nostalgia, energy, and vigor.
My camera is the Ricoh GRII, and I’m shooting high-contrast B/W JPEG + RAW. Some of the jpegs look pretty solid, but I’m currently converting most of my RAW images in Lightroom with my free tri-x 1600 preset simulations. And they look pretty solid so far.
Also perhaps one of my goals is that by the end of my trip in Hanoi (or Vietnam), I’ll make a small little magazine or “zine” of my work. Truthfully, I haven’t printed as much of my work as I would like to — but it is certainly a direction I want to head.
Without printing, I feel that projects don’t have a sense of closure. And I don’t want creative constipation to get me blocked up. I want to print, produce, and share with the world.
Coffee and wifi
For you coffee freaks out there — I have to say, the coffee here is amazing. Not only can you get great Vietnamese coffee (very strong, thick, and you can also get it with condensed milk) — but there is also great espresso here. The French certainly brought a strong coffee culture to the Vietnamese, and the wifi here doesn’t disappoint either.
At most coffee shops, I’d say the wifi speeds are probably 10x faster than the Starbucks in America. I’ve been able to upload 700mb videos to YouTube in about 5 minutes in some coffee shops. And not only that, but there are so many different coffee shops, with good vibes, good music, good service, and ambiance (I’m currently writing this at the third story of “The Coffee House”, with nice natural light coming in, and looking out to the streets).
I hate doing creative work at home, or at a hotel, inside an office, or inside a room. I always do my best work at coffee shops— perhaps it is because of the ambiance, the ambient noise, the coffee, or something else. Or perhaps because I’m an extrovert.
The biggest issue I’ve had about working in coffee shops (even in America) is the wifi sucks. But the wifi rocks here. I’m loving this city already — prepare a lot of creative publishing from me while I’m here.
My good friend Todd Hata inspired me to do daily “vlogs” (video blogs) while I’m here. I have been doing a lot of videos on the GoPro, and have had a lot of fun with it. Especially because the wifi here is so fast, I’ve been able to publish on average 1-2 videos a day.
I love the fun of making videos— because I feel it can better communicate emotions, thoughts, and feelings (compared to just written words). Also, I can better show what it looks like in Hanoi with video (rather than just photos).
I also did a bunch of YouTube street photography lectures while in Garden Grove at Cindy’s family house— which I have a bunch of videos queued to come out everyday for the next few weeks. So don’t get confused when you see some Hanoi videos and some videos in the states.
I’m not sure what other videos I want to do while here— but hopefully just some fun videos about eating food, traveling around here, and day to day life here. I hope these videos will bring some light to those of you who have never been here.
What is Vietnam like?
Before I first came to Vietnam, I imagined third world country, and everyone in rice patty hats. But it is so much more industrialized than you might expect (at least in the big cities like Hanoi and Saigon).
You go to coffee shops with fast wifi, great coffee, and you see lots of rich local Vietnamese on their newest iPhones and MacBook pros, and you see a lot of expats at the fancy restaurants and coffee shops here.
Not only that, but the food scene here is incredible. Apparently Anthony Bourdain says Vietnamese food is his favorite. The combination of fresh food, meat, and the abundance of veggies keeps the food light, delicious, without making you feel groggy.
There are so many high-end restaurants here. The other night we went to a fancy 4-dollar sign TripAdvisor restaurant called “La Badiane” (French) and the meal cost us around $70. And we were sharing plates too. The food was amazing, with great presentation, service, and flavor. But it was still pretty expensive for us (considering our lunch that day of Bun Bo Hue was only $2).
I figure because we are saving so much money here in rent (our rent will only be around $500 a month, split between us), and because most of our living expenses will be low (we don’t even have a phone plan here), we will probably splurge a little on nice restaurants. I will try to find the best places here to eat, and keep you updated.
Do I miss America?
I miss my friends, but not America (yet).
One of my biggest lessons while traveling is that I never miss the places, but the people.
I’ve tried my best to keep in touch with friends from back home via messaging and video calls. Because I’m Korean-American, most of my close friends and family use “Kakaotalk” (the Korean version of Facebook Messenger/What’s App).
If anything, I’m more productive here in Hanoi than in America, because I am living in a hotel, have access to super-fast wifi in coffee shops, and the new environment is helping me spark new ideas.
Another reflection I’ve had while here: pretty much I’ve just been alternating between two changes of clothes (even though I brought 3 pairs). Life is easy and simple.
Every night I wash my shirt, boxers, and socks in the shower, and then hang dry them. The next day they are dry. I don’t need to worry about washing laundry, sorting clothes, and I always wear the same outfit everyday (black v-neck, black pants, black shoes). Less stress in terms of how to dress myself is more energy and attention to do creative work.
I’ve also realized I need very little to be happy. I’m doing all my shooting on the Ricoh GR II (left my film Leica at home), and this $600 camera is so wonderful. I can travel light, not worry about it being stolen (if it did, I can just easily buy another), and quickly transfer and edit my photos on my laptop.
I don’t miss having a car (in Hanoi the traffic is pretty bad, we probably won’t get a motorbike) — I prefer walking.
I don’t have anything tying me down. No credit card bills, no mortgage, car payments, or other bills.
Low cost of living I think is one of the secrets to happiness.
Even if I were back in America, if I didn’t have friends or family in California, I’d probably move to Detroit or any other industrialized city in America with a low cost of living— near other creatives (and coffee shops). I feel for me, the purpose of my life is to blog, teach, and do creative work. I’m so glad I don’t need to pay for SF-housing prices, NYC prices, or LA prices. I feel you can do creative work regardless of where you live, and the less rent you need to pay, the less you need to work, and the more creative output you can make.
I’m also especially blessed being here with Cindy. She is my soul, my life, and makes my heart sing. I don’t know that many people in Hanoi (yet)— but I plan on trying to connect with the local community. But I am not lonely, because I always have her by my side.
And I have been enjoying the locals and the chance to talk with them. I just got a haircut the other day, and practiced my Vietnamese. I practice my Vietnamese when ordering coffee, when ordering food, or just asking for local directions.
I hope to continue to do more research on photographers while I’m here — perhaps continuing my “Learn From the Masters” series. There are still so many great photographers I haven’t covered— and I want to educate myself on all of photography — not just street photography.
Thank you guys so much for your love and support and listening— I will keep you guys updated with everything.