I’m currently at the “Kafe Village” and wanted to share some current meditations I’ve been having on life here in Hanoi:
Living close to the ground
One of the most interesting things I’ve found about Vietnam is this: how everyone lives so close to the ground, and on the street-level.
For example, if you’ve seen in my Hanoi Vlogs — everyone eats, and drinks on these tiny little plastic chairs, on these tiny little plastic tables. Of course this mostly pertains to street food, but it was a huge revelation to me.
I personally love living close to the ground. I remember when I was a kid (growing up Korean-American) we were always on the ground. Korean people used these tiny fold-out tables in which you didn’t need a chair. You just sat on the ground, and ate.
For my bed, I either slept on blankets on the ground, or with a mattress on the ground. Bed frames never seemed to make sense to me.
In the West, we have this obsession with being sky-high. We have unlimited ambitions, and want to build skyscrapers that reach the heavens.
In the East, I feel that people are traditionally more modest. They tend to live closer to the ground, and are more humble. Many Asians don’t even need chairs— they simply squat on the sidewalk to rest their legs (and they have fantastic hip mobility).
I am incredibly ambitious, and I want to help as many people as I possibly can in my short lifetime. Yet, ambition can kill me. Ambition is more about comparing your “success” in the eyes of others, rather than judging your own success (in your own eyes).
So everytime I eat on the streets in these tiny little plastic chairs, it is a simple and humble reminder to stay level. To stay grounded. To not let my ego take control of me. To remember humility.
Night street photography in Hanoi
I know in the last few Hanoi Diaries I wrote that I wasn’t that “inspired” when it came to shooting street photography in Hanoi.
A few days ago my opinion has changed— ever since I started to shoot street photography in Hanoi at night.
At night I feel that is when Hanoi really comes to life. Spending time with my friend Chu Viet Ha in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, I love the action. I love the tiny streets, all the commotion, and the mix of both foreigners and locals. You hear techno music on the streets, the chatter of people conversing and having fun, and you smell delicious grilled meats.
I’ve been shooting on the streets with the Ricoh GR II in Program (P) mode, with ISO 1600, center-point autofocus, and using the flash. I’ve been trying to add more multiple-subjects in my frame, and trying to push my composition to the next level.
I haven’t been that successful yet, but man — I’m having so much fun. I was able to walk around with my friend Ha for hours, and just got lost in the daze of the streets.
Which makes me remember why I love street photography so much — just the enjoyment of being connected to the streets, feeling close to other human beings, being in the “zone”, and having my eyes be active and look for any potential photo opportunity.
Also one of the hidden benefits of shooting at night is that it is a lot cooler. During the day, I prefer to stay at the cafe (with the fast wifi and air conditioning). But in the evening, it is time to go out, meet friends for dinner, walk around a bit at the night markets, grab an ice-cold beer, and shoot.
In terms of shooting with a flash here in the evening, nobody seems to really be bothered by it. I just look like another tourist. And the good thing is that because there are so many tourists here, nobody gives you a second look if you shoot with a flash.
So if you are a timid street photographer looking to build your confidence, Hanoi is definitely your place.
Promoting local Vietnamese street photography
I recently been hanging out a lot with my buddy Chu Viet Ha.
Before coming to Hanoi, I googled: “Hanoi Street Photographer” and found Ha. I connected with him on Facebook, he took me and Cindy out to BBQ, and we’ve been having a great time talking Vietnamese with one another, and also shooting together.
I was actually very humbled— he’s only shot street photography for 3 years, and 2 years ago he attended one of my free street photography workshops in Hanoi. He told me that a lot of my free photography lessons were translated into Vietnamese by some locals here— which made me super-happy.
Anyways, I made a little mini-documentary on Chu Viet Ha (who I consider one of the best street photographers here). He’s also been awesome showing me all these great local places to eat and hang out.
What I love about his work is that it isn’t the typical cheesy photos of Vietnamese rice-patty hats and bicycles. He really embraces colors, light, multiple-layers, and the spirit of Alex Webb. Yet he has his own flavor and style (his full-time job is a graphic-designer, and he went to architecture school).
Anyways, make sure to check out the video. I also hope to document and interview more Vietnamese photographers while I’m here — as I feel they don’t have as much an international presence as other photographers.
I also hope to do some free talks on street photography while here in Hanoi and eventually in Saigon. Will keep you updated with that.
Fast wifi + coffee = heaven
I’ve been incredibly productive the last two weeks here — the mix of the fast wifi at cafes here and the strong Vietnamese coffee.
It is the closest thing to heaven to me — being able to write, create, think, meditate, meet friends, walk around and take photos, and eat some good local food.
The other night Cindy said she was proud of me, and called me ‘successful.’ I think the only way I define ‘success’ is this: Not doing what you don’t want to do, and devoting your life to empowering others.
I know the purpose of my life is to empower other photographers, and I hope to do that through my videos, blog, articles, e-books, and workshops. It is the greatest pleasure that life can bring me.
Of course I still worry about finances, making money, and my future with Cindy. Yet, I know that as long as I focus on helping others, I will always be able to figure out a way to pay my rent at the end of the day.
Exciting news — Cindy and I just signed a 3-month lease in a new serviced apartment here in Hanoi. Cindy’s fellowships are paying for housing, so we opted for something close and convenient to her work at the archives. The place has super-fast wifi, is on the second-floor, and also they clean it once a week.
I like living at a hotel at the moment, but I look forward in living in the serviced apartment. We have some friends who plan on visiting, so I hope to host some friends. Not only that, but a change of scenery is always nice, and I look forward to living in the new neighborhood.
The place we’re going to live is in “Yen Hoa” — which is around 30 minutes outside of where we currently are (downtown near Hoan Kiem Lake). Apparently the Yen Hoa area is famous for businessmen — both Korean and Japanese (they’re trying to turn the place into a new Singapore).
It is a lot more industrial, but I’m sure I can find some cool cafes there, and also have new adventures there. Will keep you updated on that.
Newlywed life abroad
I just got a sweet email from one of my good friends Alexander Amy — who congratulated me and Cindy’s newly-wed status (around 2.5 months now) and how we’re able to embark on this epic 2-year journey overseas (1.5 years in Vietnam and .5 years in France).
And I have to say, it is a true blessing. Very few people ever have this opportunity in life. And I am blessed that Cindy is an academic, has won a bunch of fellowships (she pays the rent and our living expenses), and we have this unique opportunity to learn a new local culture and language.
Life here has been truly wonderful — having the opportunity to meet new people (when we first moved here, we literally knew nobody), and it has been fun discovering new coffee shops and places to eat. Not only that, but it has been exciting for me to learn Vietnamese and learn more about Cindy’s culture. For Cindy, she is also getting the hang of focusing on her research (history of the library in Vietnam).
Usually during the day (after lunch or so) she goes to the library archives to do research for around 3–5 hours. That is the time I like to duck into a coffee shop (like right now) and have time to think, meditate, write, and reflect. Or I use that time to sometimes wander around and shoot.
The evenings are the best— the chance to meet friends, try out new restaurants, and reflect on our days. I think being a ‘street photographer’ I love being on the streets. I don’t like being back in the hotel room so much. I love being able to wander, explore, and make new connections.
Updates on learning Vietnamese
Learning Vietnamese has also been fun. I’ve tried something new: writing new words I learn in a notebook.
I know it is pretty obvious, why didn’t I do it before?
Yet I’m starting to discover— the words I truly remember and commit to memory aren’t by writing it down. I only remember words and phrases by practicing them in real conversation over and over again. Not only that, but I employ a fun little strategy of associating certain words with vivid images. Apparently our human mind is trained to remember images, not abstract symbols and concepts. So if you’re able to link vivid images with a word, you are more likely to remember it.
I’m still experimenting with learning techniques here, but ultimately the best is to just have a coffee or a beer with a local, and have them speak as much to you (in the local language). I’ve learned a ton of Vietnamese just trying to communicate with my friend Chu Viet Ha (his English is good, but he is more comfortable speaking in Vietnamese). And he translates certain words I don’t know. Or if Cindy is around, she translates for me.
By having the blessing of all this free time, I want to double-down on my blogging and to create more information that I hope others will find interesting, empowering, or educational.
You can see I’ve been posting pretty regularly nowadays— about once or twice a day. I hope to keep the practice up, without being too spammy.
But once again, I always support your love and support through the years. I just realized I’m very close to 2,000 blog posts since the start of this blog (I’m currently at around 1,995).
So once I hit that 2,000 mark, please help me celebrate by having a nice double-espresso for me, a swig of wine, or an ice-cold beer for me.
Join me on the adventure of a lifetime
If you’ve never been in Vietnam before, it is seriously one of the most under-rated places ever.
If you want to go on the adventure of a lifetime, join me on my epic week-long travel photography experience (from Hanoi to Sapa). It is from Feb 8–13, 2017 and it will give us a great time to hang out, explore, get to know the local culture, have tons of strong Vietnamese-iced coffee, eat local food, and of course improve our photography.
Spots are limited, so make sure not to miss out on this experience! You can learn more about the workshop here >>
My caffeine high is starting to wear off, but I still feel a bit more energy for some more blog posts while I wait for Cindy to finish (about 50 minutes).
There are a lot of cool things coming to the blog, and also a lot of fun videos I have queued up.
Have a beautiful day, and let’s chat more soon.