I took 2 dare decisions last October. First I decided to travel to Vietnam solo and second I ditched my Canon DSLR to travel only with Fujifilm cameras x100s and X-E1.
The actual planning of the trip started couple of months back. I was a bit confused where to start the trip south or north of Vietnam and whether to include the middle part of Vietnam. The thing about Vietnam is that everything is possible. Airlines were available and my options were wide open. After some serious research I decided to stick to the north for this trip and leave the other parts for another trip (yes there will be other trips!). Hanoi, Lao Cai (Sapa & BacHa) and Halong Bay were the areas I visited in this 10 days adventure.
I managed to get the visa on arrival. However I did arrange a soft visa (no objection letter) from Vietnam embassy in Kuwait. I didn’t have to send my passport or anything physically, I just emailed the required soft copies to the embassy and the fees via western union then I got the letter through email.
I chose Cathay Pacific airlines to fly to Vietnam because of their award winning reputation and wide network in Asia’s “Dragon Air”. With Cathay Pacific you can reserve the seats at the time of purchasing the tickets. I reserved 2 months before the actual flight and booked the best seat for comfort. I don’t have any complains about the flight, the air attendents were friendly and the food was good. Flying Bahrain to HongKong was around 9 hours I tried to sleep watched a couple of movies till we arrived in HK and there I was totally mesmerised by the new atmosphere. I was really amazed by how organized HK airport was. It was the most organized and advance airport I’ve been to. Everything was available from shopping to cafes to prayer rooms. The 3 hour layover went really fast specially with FREE WIFI ! I headed to the gate and waited for Dragon Air to carry me to Hanoi. By that time I was getting tired and a bit lost between timezones. Thank god the flight to Hanoi was short of an hour.
I arrived to Hanoi and I could tell immediately that it is so different from Hong Kong. Hanoi airport is very modest and disorganized. I picked up my luggage and found the hotel driver waiting for me. I stopped to get a local sim card then we left the airport. At the taxi ride I was screening the city with eyes wide open like a little kid in Disney world. I was astonished by the number of cafes and people sitting on mini stools on the side of the streets all over Hanoi.
immediately I knew I’m gonna love Vietnam like I loved India since they share the disorganized structure and rich culture in addition to friendly people.
Hanoi is a very busy city with its non stop buzz. If you could imagine living inside a honey comb Hanoi would be it. Hanoi has 4.5 million motorbikes, trying to cross the road without being run over by a vehicle is an adventure on itself. But being a photographer I really love busy life and capturing interesting faces of people on their motorbikes.
I stayed in L’Opera hotel Hanoi which is just near the famous opera house and close to the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. The hotel is just perfect, the staff are friendly, the high beds, the opera atmosphere and the colonial style restaurants. One step outside the hotel and its a whole different world, the city, traffic and the mayhem.
The first day was really an introduction to the city and nation as its my first time visiting south-east Asia. I spent most of my time wandering around the old quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. I loved the lake and found the atmosphere around it very soothing and lovely. Around the lake you will find many elderly people working out and playing yoga, people reading, families picnicking and couples dating.
Tip: Don’t miss the lake at sunrise time. The large number of people (mostly elderly) working out, meditating and playing yoga is just amazing and inspiring. I joined the laughing yoga class it was so much fun I never laughed so much in my life!
My last 3 days in Hanoi were mostly spent walking from the hotel to the lake and getting lost at the old quarter and I just loved it. What a wonderful and interesting experience it was getting to know Hanoi. In my first day I followed the Lonely Planet guidebook roadmap and started at the Ho Chi Menh mausoleum. Then I noticed a long line of people holding flowers standing nearby. Later I learned that they were paying final respect to General Vo Nguyen Giap who passed away a week before my arrival.
After giving respect to the great Ho Chi Menh I took one of bicycle rickshaws to the old quarter which was the first and last time I use them. The guy was trying to scam me with the usual overpricing tricks. I learned my lesson and used taxis for the rest of the trip. The taxis are actually cheap in Vietnam and they all use meters.
At night I went to the water puppetry show which was nice except for the noisy tourists with their annoying cameras and flashes going on during the show. I didn’t have a chance to visit the museums (there were too many to choose from) but I did visit the temple of Literature which was really a beautiful place dedicated to Confucius.
Everyday is a wedding day.. in Hanoi !
I honestly don’t know what’s the deal with the wedding photo shoots taking place all over Hanoi specially Hoan Kiem Lake and Sofitel Metropole hotel area. I literally witnessed more than a dozen photo shoots everyday! It seems like a norm to hire a photographer to do a photo shoot around the city. It was just fun watching them in action.
Travelling to Hanoi is like travelling in time to the colonial era. The style, architecture and atmosphere of the city has a french touch to it. French colonialism in Vietnam lasted more than six decades I really do think that Hanoi is the Paris of Asia.
My days in Hanoi came to an end and it was time to take off for my next destination, Sapa. I booked to stay in the Victoria hotel Sapa which is the best hotel in Sapa mainly to be able to travel with the Victoria train. Unfortunately the cabins were full so the Victoria hotel booked me in the next best thing, Sapaly train. The trip to Lao Cai was an overnight ride so usually the trains leave Hanoi around 9 PM and arrive to LaoCai around 5:30 am. I shared the cabin with a nice Japanese couple but here is what went wrong. Our cabin door was not locked during the night and we were robbed !! Around 3 am the Japanese guy saw a guy coming to our cabin and he yelled at him, the thief immediately ran away. I discovered that my iPhone was missing, we ran to report the theft to our cabin security guy. I waited and waited and the security guy came back empty-handed. I told him that I saw the thief’s face when he ran away and he was wearing a uniform, and that I’m going to call the police so you better find him. 15 minutes later he came back with my iPhone claiming he found it in one of the empty cabins. Phew! What a relief, I was reunited with my iPhone.
I left Lao Cai train station and made my way to Sapa. Sapa is a small quiet town tucked between the mountains it is inhabited by several ethnic minority groups such as Hmong, Dao (Yao), Giáy, Pho Lu, and Tay. In recent years Sapa has witnessed an economic boom and increase number of hotels due to the tourists inflow. Victoria Hotel was just a lovely mountain hotel perfect for getaways. The hotel staff felt sorry to my train incident and they upgraded my room. I refreshed and went walking to Sapa town. As soon as I left the hotel I was snatched (not literally!) by the ethnic H’mong ladies. They gather around hotels and all over town to sell their handmade products to tourists. They like to chat and follow tourists even if you refuse to buy anything from them and apologize for having to go somewhere they will follow you even if you stop talking to them! It’s a bit annoying but you have to get used to it.
The landscape in Sapa is just impressive, the mix of mountains and rice fields with its different colors from green to yellow is breathtaking. I don’t claim to be a landscape photographer but I could imagine how landscape photographers would be in seventh heaven in Sapa specially if the weather is clear. I didn’t include Sapa in my trip plan for the landscape even though I truly enjoyed it. I chose Sapa in order to visit other villages around the area and get to know the lifestyle of hill tribes. I chose a tour package from the hotel which included BackHa market and other villages. I told the guide that I want to arrive to BacHa market before the tourist buses arrive. We left Sapa at 5:45 am enroute to BacHa and it was just beautiful seeing the sunrise and the hills wakeup. It took around 2 hours to arrive to BacHa and I dived immediately to the market. BacHa market is considered the biggest weekly event in the area.
It is also a social event where the hill tribes meetup to socialize. It was really hard to shoot at the market when it got crowded even though I arrived early. It was just mayhem all over. I went straight to the big arena where the actual trading happens and the bidding on live animals mostly water buffalos as they are very popular to farmers. I stood not so close but not too far to watch the ethic H’mong tribes interact with each other. It was just very hard to take clean shots with minimum distractions but the Fujifilm X-E1 55-200 mm lens was very handy. I had 2 cameras hanging on my body the X-E1 for far objects and the x100s for the short distance frames. What I liked from my intense experience at the BacHa market is mostly the colorful traditional attire and how the H’mong ladies carry their baskets and interact with each other.
My 3 days exploring Sapa and its surrounding villages have come to an end and it was time to take the overnight train back again. This time it was Victoria Train and it was perfect I slept all the way till we reached Hanoi. The bed, cabin and washroom conditions were very good. There was even a wakeup call with coffee served at the door.
I was so excited to go to Halong Bay and compare it to the pictures I’ve been seeing in magazines. I booked a one night Victory Star cruise trip through Eviva Tours, they were really professional in their service. After a 3 hours drive from Hanoi to Halong City we arrived to the harbor where all the cruise ships depart. A small boat transported us to the cruise ship and then the room keys were distributed to everyone. It was all well-organized and efficient.
The cruise had different groups of travellers some from Turkey and others were French and German. Everyone had lunch and were introduced to the cruise itinerary. After lunch they took us to the floating fishing village. We went there with the small boats and noticed the weather changing. After coming back to the cruise ship I received a call from the tourist office telling me that there is a storm alert and we are returning back to Halong City. The cruise crew were very sad to confirm the news. It was a very short trip to Halong Bay but it was better to be safe. The tourism office booked me a night in a hotel in Halong City and I decided to return to Hanoi early morning to avoid night driving.
On the drive back to Hanoi I asked the driver to stop for a couple of times to take some photos of the rice fields and children going to school.
I spent the last night in the historic and luxurious Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi opened in 1901 in the French colonial style. I woke up early as I wanted to walk to the lake and join the laughing yoga class but unfortunately it was raining nonstop. I spent the last hours inside the hotel and I went to the spa. My days in Vietnam had come to an end I headed to the airport and waited for my flight to Hong Kong. The flight was delayed and we were compensated with free dinner at one of the restaurants there. I had some Pho and kissed Vietnam goodbye. I Arrived to Hong Kong spent the night at a nearby hotel, had breakfast and went back to the airport for my flight home. All I can say is that I’m not done with South East Asia yet and next time I’m starting where I stopped at this trip, HalongBay.
What I liked about Fujifilm cameras in Vietnam trip:
Lightweight. I walked all day long everyday and I was totally fine carrying both cameras over my body.
Compact size. I travelled with a relatively small bag and a backpack so I didn’t have a lot of room in my bags. The 2 cameras with their accessories fit in perfectly in my backpack.
Control Buttons are reachable on the top of the cameras. You can easily fully manually control the camera without looking at the LCD screen to change the ISO, shutter speed, Aperture or exposure.
Photo quality. Even though the X-E1 and x100s are not full frame camera but they do provide high quality photos. The colors are vibrant and sharp.
Silence. I mentioned this previously in my review of the x100s. Silence is essential in streetphotography you don’t want to be noticed and lose the genuine emotions.
Versatile Modes. From Panorama to multiple exposures there are many ways to play with the cameras and produce high quality unique photographs
The Look. They just look and feel cool and vintage.
What I didn’t like:
The battery gets drained very fast. I always carry extra batteries even if I was just going for a quick walk around the hotel. I used my DSLR blackrapid strap on the X-E1 and I had to open the strap lock every time I wanted to change the battery. This was a bit annoying.
Speed. The X-E1 takes a little bit more time to process the photos. There is that fraction of a second that it takes when you click a photo to saving it and being ready for the next frame. It can be crucial when you are in a fast pace shooting scenario like sports and action. But since I wasnt in that situation it was totally ok and I didn’t lose significant shots. I think it actually made me slow down and think before I click away. I did end up with less number of photos but more keepers than when I usually travel with DSLR.
Did I miss my Canon DSLR anytime during the trip? Nope!
I was actually thanking god I wasn’t carrying my DSLR specially when I was hiking up and down the hills. It was really a hectic trip and travelling light was essential.
Big Note of Thanks:
– Many Thanks to AbuEssa brothers (Fujifilm official distributors in Bahrain) for their support and lending me the X-E1 and the lenses which I used during the trip.
– Thanks to my friend Victoria Alexander who helped me plan the trip she made my life much easier with the contacts she provided.
– Victoria Hotel Sapa for helping me report the train incident. I reported the incident to Victoria hotel who called the train company and followed up until they found the video footage of the incident and took the necessary action.