Hanoi Diary #6: Living in Airplane Mode

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

Dear friend,

I’m currently at “VPRESSO” (my favorite coffee shop in Hanoi), and it is storming outside. Seriously raining buckets, with thunder booming in the air.

Fortunately Cindy and I are inside the coffee shop, dry, caffeinated, and safe. We’re going to meet our friend Thu later for dinner, and wanted to use this time to reflect on some life updates here.

Living in airplane mode

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

For this move, here are the devices I brought:

  • 13’’ Macbook pro
  • Smartphone
  • Ricoh GR II
  • GoPro Hero 3

I intentionally made the choice not to bring my Kindle paper white and iPad air. Why? More devices, more things to charge, more stress, more problems.

I do most of my reading on my smartphone in the Kindle app, and haven’t had much of an issue.

The bigger thing I wanted to write about is how it is living in “airplane mode.”

I don’t have a local SIM card. Therefore I can only use my smartphone when I’m connected to wifi.

Living in “airplane mode” has been amazing. I still have all the benefits of a smartphone (using Google maps in offline mode, contacting friends and family back home with ‘Kakaotalk’, the Korean version of What’s App.

Hanoi, 2016 (shot by Cindy)
Hanoi, 2016 (shot by Cindy)

Honestly I barely use my phone at all anymore. And I feel more focused to do creative work. Fewer distractions, less stress, and more productivity.

Usually our day goes something like this:

  • Wake up at around 8–9am
  • Go downstairs for free breakfast at the hotel (eggs, bacon)
  • Walk to coffee shop (10 minute walk)
  • Order coffee at coffee shop (espresso or just black Vietnamese coffee)
  • Get caffeinated, start writing or working
  • Keep working until around 2pm, go out for lunch (usually Pho or some street food)
  • Cindy goes to library archive to do research (I either follow, or go back to the coffee to do more work)
  • Usually meet a friend for dinner at around 6–7pm
  • Hang out with friend (or friends) for leisurely 3-hour dinner.
  • Get home around 10pm
  • Shower, unwind, read, chat about the day
  • Usually fall asleep around midnight

The greatest thing about not having data on my smartphone is how much more present I’ve been able to be.

For example, when I’m eating lunch or dinner with Cindy or friends, I don’t feel the urge to reach at my phone. I keep my phone in airplane mode in my backpack most of the time now (instead of my front pocket), and I no longer feel the “phantom rings.” I uninstalled all social media apps from my smartphone, which means I don’t have the urge to check how many likes a certain post has got.

Hanoi, 2016. View from VSPRESSO
Hanoi, 2016. View from VSPRESSO

I’m pretty amazed how much more work I’ve been able to get done without being distracted. I also find living in a hotel has so many benefits— not having to worry about breakfast, cleaning up the room, or worrying about getting things fixed.

Currently life is really good, I’m mostly focused on doing more research, writing on the blog, practicing Vietnamese with our local friends, and helping out Cindy whenever I can.

Life is peaceful and tranquil. Lots of coffee, intellectual stimulation, and creation (both photography and writing).

If this isn’t a perfect life, I don’t know what is.

Always walking with my camera

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

One of the biggest stresses in life used to be always carrying a camera with me. All my cameras in the past were generally too big and cumbersome to always carry around.

Even the Leica— I hated always carrying it around, especially attaching the flash. It was a lot heavier than I would like, and even though I can shoot extremely quickly with it, the weight and cumbersomeness of it made it a pain in the ass to lug around on a day-to-day basis.

The Ricoh GR II is my only camera here in Hanoi. It has been lovely. I keep it in “P” (program) mode, ISO 800–1600 (ISO 800 during day, 1600 at night), center-point autofocus. I just walk around with it in my hand (whenever we are going anywhere), and snap photos along the way.

And the best thing about the Ricoh is just how easy it is to use the flash. Just flipping the little switch on the side, instead of having to go through complicated menus.

And I’ve been making photos that I enjoy. They probably aren’t the best photos of my life, but I feel more personal joy and happiness from them. They are mostly snapshots of Cindy, strangers I meet along the way, and some candid street photos in Hanoi.

I’m also starting to really enjoy shooting color, especially with the flash. I’ve been spending a lot of time tweaking my Lightroom presets to optimize for the Ricoh GR. I still haven’t perfected the look, but I am starting to get results that I like.

The hard thing with the Ricoh GR is that it is fantastic for black and whites. Good for color— but post-processing the colors on it are a pain in the ass. I have found that Fujifilm cameras were the best for color — even just the JPEG’s.

A light lifestyle

Tuyen Quang, 2016
Tuyen Quang, 2016

Anyways, in terms of gear, cameras, and lifestyle, I am extremely at peace, and tranquil.

Currently I wear the same thing everyday. Black v-neck shirt, black pants, black socks, black shoes, and black boxers. Every night, I just wash my clothes in the shower with shampoo. Then I hang it up, and in the morning it is dry.

I don’t need any more clothes. And being far away from the suburbs of California, I no longer feel any desire or compulsion to waste time, energy, or money on shopping at malls. That is actually one of the best things about being in downtown Hanoi — no stupid big malls to distract me. But I will talk more about Hanoi malls later.

Furthermore, the Ricoh GR II is the ultimate “good enough” camera for me at the moment. Sure there are other cameras that have better image quality, handling, etc. But the Ricoh satisfies 90% of my day-to-day needs. It has a flash, fits in my front pocket, and also does macro. I currently have no feelings of G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome) and don’t miss the Leica at all, which is just chilling back at home in California.

Even the hotel we’re staying at, it is only $10 a night. The room isn’t fancy, but has free wifi and clean beds. What else do I need in life? Do I really need to buy a big house in the suburbs? I wouldn’t even want to — I prefer living downtown.

As with the American dream of owning a car— not even something I want at the moment. Walking here has been so lovely— I can take more street photos, see the locals on the street, and feel connected with society. I feel when I’m back in the states and driving, I feel so closed off— like in a bubble.

Also by not having Amazon prime here in Hanoi (obviously)— I don’t have the urge to buy anything. What else do I need? Nothing.

Learning Vietnamese

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

I am pretty happy to share that my progress in learning Vietnamese is going really well. Part of it is just the “immersion” experience. I always hear it being spoken, so I’m starting to pick up the sounds, tones, and commonly-said phrases. Vietnamese no longer sounds like random gibberish to me, I can hear the sounds and words. I still don’t understand all the words— but I can make them out.

The big thing is just practicing a lot. I have a very limited vocabulary, but I try to practice whenever possible. I always try to say hello to the hotel staff, to our Uber drivers, coffee shop workers, restaurant workers, and try to speak as much with our Vietnamese friends.

I don’t talk Vietnamese with Cindy— speaking English is easier. I find that the only way to learn a foreign language is to talk with someone who is better at the foreign language than English. Because if they’re good enough in English, you have no reason to really practice the foreign language.

The same is with Vietnamese. My friends who are really good in English (who are local Vietnamese), we speak in English. Because it is easier, and I am lazy.

But when our Vietnamese friends are more comfortable speaking in Vietnamese, then I actually have a reason to practice my Vietnamese, and push my boundaries.

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

A huge hack I’ve learned about learning Vietnamese words: visualizing the words as vivid images. I have also been trying to practice the sounds in my mouth, to feel and remember the sensation of my tongue when saying the words. Also the rhythm of Vietnamese is like listening to musical notes or songs.

The last biggest thing I’ve learned about language learning is that you just need to speak it as much as possible, whenever possible. My only drive to learn Vietnamese is to connect with the local people here — to connect with them on a deeper emotional level. I want to communicate to build empathy, not just convey information.

I’m also lucky that whenever I want to learn a word in Vietnamese, I just ask Cindy in English. Or I’ll ask our Vietnamese friends (who are all pretty good in English) to translate for me. And I try to repeat the word several times afterwards, to commit the word to memory.

Anyways, will keep you updated more on learning Vietnamese. But honestly, it is a pretty easy language to learn— because the grammar is pretty much non-existent and super easy. You can just say: “Yesterday I go eat” instead of saying, “Yesterday I went to eat.” Vietnamese grammar is like building lego blocks, and moving around different tenses.

Only difficult thing in Vietnamese are the tones. It takes a while to learn it, especially if you have a non-tonal language (like English, and Korean for me). But the more you practice, it just comes naturally — how else could children learn it without going to school?

Vietnamese society: rich vs poor

Hanoi, 2016
Hanoi, 2016

There is a huge up-and-coming middle-class in Vietnam. Almost every college student I’ve met has an iPhone. You don’t see anyone with bicycles anymore in Hanoi, it is all motor bikes and cars.

Wifi is pretty much everywhere for free. Most people have smartphones, and you see a ton of foreign investment. Huge malls are being made all over, and there are tons of fancy high-end restaurants in Hanoi as well.

Cindy and I have been to parts outside of downtown Hanoi — and the wealth is pretty insane. You see Rolls-Royces, Ferraris, and tons of BMW’s and Mercedes. Crazier thing — these foreign cars cost 3x more in Vietnam than in America. So if they’re driving expensive cars, they are really balling.

The biggest shock was the first time Cindy and I went to one of the local big malls here in Hanoi. I saw all these upper-middle class/rich Vietnamese women with Louie Vuitton bags, designer clothes, and brand-new iPhones. The same goes for the kids, they all are chubby (Western diet), have iPads, and you can tell they are from a totally different social world.

Generally when I used to think of Vietnam, I just imagined everyone as being “third world.” But honestly, Vietnam is like a “middle-income developing” country now; rapidly developing, especially from foreign investment in Korea and Japan. Samsung makes their smartphones in Vietnam, North Face makes their clothes here, and the Japanese also do tons of business here. I know that the Americans are starting to pour in tons of money in investment as well (I recommend watching Obama’s recent speech in Vietnam).

Globalization is also incredibly pervasive. I’ve seen tons of Starbucks, KFC’s, Burger Kings, etc here.

For me, I still prefer to hang out on the streets, in the small little alleyways, where people are close to the streets, and close to one another. Being in the richer neighborhoods in Hanoi, you feel more isolated— just like you were living in America, South Korea, or Singapore.

Wealth in relationships

Cindy enjoying coconut water (non-hipster version)

The thing I love most about the Vietnamese is how they value their relationships over everything else. Relationships with family, friends, and loved ones.

It is something I need to constantly remind myself of— to not get too caught up in my work and myself. To stay connect to those who really matter to me.

Upcoming travels


Next week I’m in Australia for two weeks; Melbourne and Sydney.

I still have 2 more spots left for my Sydney Conquer Your Fears in Street Photography Workshop on October 8–9th — sign up (not sure when I will visit Australia again).

I also have another mini-workshop tour in Singapore, Tokyo, and Kyoto. Singapore and Tokyo are sold out, but I still have some spots in my Kyoto Introduction to Composition in Street Photography workshop (November 19–20th).

The workshop I’m actually most excited for is the epic week-long Hanoi to Sapa Travel Street Photography Experience on Feb 8–13, 2017. It is a photo-workshop, that emphasizes cultural exchange, travel, and building unforgettable memories. The spots are filling up pretty quickly, so if you want to go on the trip of a lifetime (with great food, great new friends, and great photography), make sure to sign up before it sells out (and I am definitely sure it will sell out soon).

I haven’t really fleshed out my travel schedule for the rest of 2017, but I might actually not travel as much. I might spend more time here in Hanoi and Saigon (later in 2017) to improve my Vietnamese, help out Cindy, and spend more time doing research and blogging.

My hope is to spend only 10–20% of my time traveling in 2017, and 80–90% of my time in Vietnam. As time is going on, traveling wears me out more, and being away from Cindy pains me.

But anyways, will keep you updated with everything.

Thank you always for the love, support, and constant encouragement. I am truly blessed to be able to live here in Hanoi, and overseas as a recently newly-wed couple. I try to always count my blessings, and will try to keep any future complaints to a minimum.

New content for the blog


I’m starting to double-down on working on the blog, and pretty happy with my progress.

You can see that the “Start Here” page is better-organized, with more content. I will continue to experiment with more designs down the road, but my goal is to hopefully be the most-informative resource for photography education on the web. Thank you for being a part of this journey!

I also just hit 2,000+ blog posts recently. To another 2,000!



Past Hanoi Diaries


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