eric kim street photography hanoi ricoh gr ii-0003866

How to Travel

eric kim street photography hanoi ricoh gr ii-0003866
Ha Long Bay, 2017 #cindyproject

Dear friend,

I wanted to share some thoughts with you on traveling.

Basically, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to travel. But I do have some ideas which I hope will be useful to you.

1. Why do you want to travel?

Hanoi, 2017
Hanoi, 2017

First of all, consider why you want to travel. I think traveling for the sake of traveling is the biggest waste of time.

I know for me, when I first wanted to travel— it is because I thought that by traveling, I could make these amazing photos. I day-dreamed about me walking the dreamy streets of Paris, and taking these amazing ‘decisive moment’ photos.

However in reality, once I got to Paris — it wasn’t as amazing as I imagined it. I still loved the city, but didn’t get any good photos I was happy with.

Another reason why I wanted to travel was for a sense of adventure. I started to get bored with home (even though I was living in Los Angeles), and thought that by traveling, I would open up my mind to the world, I would find ‘enlightenment’ and I would experience amazing things.

I did find that after traveling, I did open up my mind. I became a lot more tolerant towards other religions, other belief-systems, and learned to curb some of my ignorance. I certainly didn’t find ‘enlightenment’ through traveling— but I did discover minimalism, traveling with less, and how none of our possessions are essential.

I also learned through traveling the importance of home, community, close friends, and family. Because after traveling for a while, you become exhausted from it. You lose sight why you are traveling. At a certain point, you keep traveling for the sake of it.

But I think that for me, traveling was a way for me to find some truth about the world. The truth I discovered through traveling was that people are more similar than dissimilar. All human beings want to love, and be loved. All human beings want to avoid stress, worry, and anxiety. All human beings want to be close to their loved ones, and they want to do meaningful work. We all have different belief systems, but our core value of love is the same.

2. Spend more time in fewer places

Ha Long Bay, 2017

As of now, I no longer have this burning lust or desire to travel for the sake of it. Instead, I welcome it when the opportunity presents itself. For example, I am currently living in Vietnam, because Cindy needs to do her research abroad for 2 years. But I think I would be just as happy living back home in the states.

Also when it comes to traveling, my preferences have changed. I used to want to see as much as possible when on the road. Now, I prefer to stay in fewer places for longer periods of time. For example, rather than seeing 10 cities in 10 days, I would prefer to spend 10 days in 1 city. This way, I can actually enjoy myself — get to know the city deeper, beneath the thin veneer on the outside.

Furthermore, I no longer feel the need to see landmarks or certain sights. Once you’ve seen one pagoda, temple, or church — you’ve seen them all.

Rather, I just like to walk when traveling. To walk aimlessly, without a destination in mind. When I’m walking at a slow pace, I have the time to think, meditate, and lose consciousness of my body. I like to do this with a camera in hand, just in case I see any good photos. For me, street photography is just walking meditation with a camera.

Not only that, but I’ve become a lazy traveler. I just prefer to walk from cafe to cafe, and go from one espresso to another. I generally use my time in cafes to think, read, meditate, and write. Occasionally I look at my photos too.

3. Don’t trust online recommendations

Tokyo, 2017

Another thing I’ve learned through my travels— don’t trust travel-recommendation websites like TripAdvisor. They will always give you the worst touristy places, that are over-priced, and places that are mediocre but Western-friendly. Rather, the best food is always the street food, and what the locals eat. So as a general rule, the more locals I see eating at a restaurant or on the streets, the better it is. The more Westerners or tourists, the worse the place usually is.

I find the best recommendations via word-of-mouth. Instead of asking the locals, “Where do you recommend eating around here?” (of course, they will give you Western-friendly places) — it is better to ask, “Where do you usually eat around here?” Ask them what restaurants or street food they usually eat. Similarly, when you are at a restaurant or food establishment, ask the waiter what they like to eat there the most, rather than “what is popular.” This way, people show their true preferences, because they have ‘skin in the game.’

4. How to shoot travel photography

Tokyo, 2017

When I first started to travel and shoot photography, I would do it in a “national geographic” manner — colorful Steve McCurry-esque images.

However the problem with this type of photography is that you will take the same cliche photos as everyone else who has traveled for the first time.

Rather, I recommend you to use traveling abroad as the chance to photograph yourself and your loved ones, rather than photographing strangers.

Photograph your own shadow. Photograph yourself in the mirror. Photograph your loved ones drinking a cup of coffee, or in bed. Photograph strangers based on the emotions you yourself feel.

Treat travel photography as a chance for introspection, and a way for you to discover yourself through your images. Don’t treat it like a safari, to just photograph the exotic — just like how hunters shoot elephants from afar.

5. The less technology, the better

Busan, 2017
Busan, 2017

I love technology, but when it comes to traveling— the less technology, the better.

I’m a slave to convenience. I would rather use my smartphone’s GPS and Google Maps to find directions, rather than ask locals. The worst is when I have international data — I spend less time looking around when traveling, and more time looking into a 5’’ device.

When I first started traveling, smartphones weren’t ubiquitous. Very few places had public and free wifi. Now, whenever I go to a coffee shop or check into a hotel, the first thing I ask is, “What is the wifi?”

My practical advice is this: turn off your smartphone as much as possible when traveling. And not only that, but try to wait at least a day, a few days, or even a week before sharing your photos with others. This will give you chance to let your experiences and memories marinate into your mind and soul. Then when you share the image (after a delay), you can re-experience your memory, and cherish it more.

When we share images too quickly, we have no time for reflection. As Socrates once said, “A life unexamined is not worth living.” In photography, your photos unexamined aren’t worth taking. Self-examination always requires peace, quiet, time, and meditation.

6. Disconnect

Hanoi, 2016 eric kim street photography hanoi
Hanoi, 2016

Related to the prior point; use traveling as a (rare) opportunity to disconnect. Make yourself purposefully difficult to reach. This way, you can actually enjoy your travels, and find some peace, serenity, and tranquility.

Don’t be the anxious person who checks their email several times a day, even when on the road. Everything can wait. And if a family member dies, you certainly won’t find it out through email. Even if someone does die while you are traveling abroad— your delay in discovering the horrible news won’t change the fact that it happened.

When is the last time you went 24 hours without using the internet, your smartphone, a laptop, or any internet-connective device? Perhaps you can treat your travels as a way to detox from technology. To finally have some time to reflect, read that novel you’ve always wanted to, or keep a personal diary.

7. Don’t have an itinerary

Seoul, 2017 #cindyproject
Seoul, 2017 #cindyproject


Don’t be a slave to a plan when you’re traveling. Change your travel plans, day-by-day, and hour-by-hour. Be what the French call, a “flaneur” — someone who likes to wander aimlessly, at a slow and elegant pace.

The best when traveling is the unexpected. The beauty of spontaneity. The excitement of things that occur unplanned.

You might meet a stranger that you might want to hang out with. You might discover a cool cafe or restaurant while you’re wandering around the roads. Or when you’re traveling abroad, you might want to spend a few extra days in a city you didn’t expect to be good. Conversely, you might want to cut short a trip in a city you don’t like.

My personal recommendation when it comes to “planning” when it comes to traveling is this — only choose 1 activity a day. If you want to go sightsee, choose only 1 location. If you want to go to a certain restaurant, only choose 1. This way you can have at least one “achievable” goal for the day. As for the rest of the day, let local sights, attractions, and recommendations lead your way.

8. How to pack for traveling

eric kim street photography - tokyo-0000358
Tokyo, 2016

“When in doubt, throw it out.”

Use this maxim when it comes to packing for traveling.

Honestly, you never need anything when traveling. You can always buy (almost anything) when you’re traveling abroad. Don’t forget that foreign cities have supermarkets, convenience stores, and local stores. You can buy all your essentials overseas.

For me, I’ve found that the (most) you need are 2 pairs of clothes. One you are currently wearing, and another pair in your bag. Don’t wear cotton when traveling (at least for your under-wear), so your clothes dry quickly. Each night, wash your clothes in the shower with shampoo or soap, then wring it, and hang-dry it.

Clothes are the biggest thing we always over-pack.

Don’t bring more than 1 pairs of shoes, you will never wear them. Don’t bring formal clothes, you aren’t going to impress anybody while you’re traveling. Don’t pack more devices or technology than is necessary.

When it comes to anything, always optimize for weight and size. Meaning, prefer what is lighter and smaller than what is heavier and bigger. You don’t need the “best” travel equipment. Aim for 80% “good enough”, and settle.

As for luggage, leave the big wheely-things at home. Just take 1 backpack, which is a medium size. The bigger your bag, the more stuff you’re going to be suckered into stuffing it with. Stuff has a weird property — it expands to fill the size of any container. So the bigger your bag, the more stuff you will pack. The smaller your bag, the fewer stuff you will pack.

Also as a rule, whenever I pack my stuff for a trip, I look at it, and figure out how to remove half of it. Even now, I always still bring a few extra things which aren’t necessary.

For 99% people out there, I recommend leaving your tablets and laptops at home. Just bring a smartphone or any pocketable device.

Don’t bring paperback or hardcover books with you when you’re traveling. It will add unnecessary bulk and weight, and once you’re done reading a book, it will become a burden. Just download some e-books into your smartphone, to save weight. And the truth is even when you’re traveling, you won’t have as much time to read as you think you do.

Anything digital is your emancipation when you’re traveling. Sure the physical experience of ‘real’ books is better, but once again — the lighter you are when traveling, the happier you will be. The less weight, the less stress, and the less exhaustion and fatigue you will feel traveling.

9. Avoid expensive cities

Dalat, Vietnam 2016
Dalat, Vietnam 2016

The biggest advice I would give myself when it comes to traveling is this: avoid expensive cities.

When I first wanted to backpack as a student, I chose Western Europe. Bad choice. Everything was very expensive (often more expensive than in the states). My dollar didn’t go far.

Instead, I would have recommended myself to check out Southeast Asia, where the food is better, cheaper, and expenses are a lot lower. The less money you spend, the more time you can spend traveling, the more freedom you will have, and the more “bang for the buck” you will get. My favorite Southeast Asian city (by far) is Vietnam — probably the most underrated country. Visit Hanoi, Sapa, Hue, Dalat, and Saigon — and you will experience amazing people, amazing food, all for a low cost. Oh yeah, and the best coffee.

And honestly even when you travel in an expensive and fancy exotic city (like London or Paris), you won’t have that different of an experience than traveling in another exotic city like Hanoi or Bangkok. For me, traveling is less about the city itself— traveling is more as a way for you to reflect, and get away from the craziness of the ‘real world’ back home.

10. Don’t have unrealistic expectations from traveling

eric kim self portrait dalat
Dalat, 2016

Don’t travel for the sake of it. Have a goal for your travels.

To travel “just to see stuff” is the biggest waste of time, money, and effort.

I think a better goal should be to experience new cultures, to open up your mind, to take a break from your job, to have some time to meditate and relax, to have an opportunity to read or write or reflect, to take photos, or disconnect.

Whatever you do, make it self-introspective. Treat traveling as a chance for you to discover yourself. To know yourself better.

Traveling won’t make you a better person, it won’t cause you to become more wise, or have any big epiphanies, enlightenment, or breakthroughs in life.

11. You don’t need to go far from home

eric kim street photography hanoi-0002040
Hanoi, 2016 #cindyproject

Last piece of advice— travel close to home. You don’t need to go overseas to experience the joys of travel. Often visiting the next city to yours can be enough distance to escape your home, and to relax and find tranquility.

And if you have no money or opportunity to travel, just visit the local mountain, the local park, or escape into yourself. Traveling is more of a state of mind, rather than being a slave to any external place.

12. Know yourself through travel

Hue, 2017 #cindyproject

Traveling has helped me discover new cultures, but has helped me love my own culture even more than I did in the past.

Traveling has helped me meet new amazing people, but has helped me better discover myself.

Travel as a form of self-discovery.