My Street Photography Experience in Hanoi
Two weeks were over in a heartbeat. Time flies when you are having fun and enjoy the city. This describes my experience the best. To say that I know Hanoi would be far overstated, as the city has so much to offer that two weeks only allow me to see a short preview of the full potential.
Therefore I only can only talk about my favorite areas and where I shot almost every day. Not surprisingly this is around old-town and the Hoan Kiem Lake.
For the duration of my stay, these places put their spell on me, so I had to visit them over and over again. I know that Hanoi has great areas outside this small district, but the life and people attracted me and I followed my curiosity.
So here is an overview of “my” Hanoi, which is probably just 1% of what this city and greater area really have to display.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Without a doubt my favorite place of Hanoi. Whenever I had the chance I made the 30-minute walk to the lake to catch its unique atmosphere. Whether at night or during the day, there is always something happening at this lake.
If you want to visit Hanoi yourself, I would advise you to book a place not too far away from the Hoan Kiem Lake as it will probably one of the places that you want to visit over and over again too. With the traffic in mind, keep that destination in the walking distance.
It takes roughly 45 minutes to walk around the lake once and there are a lot of cafes and food stalls surrounding the lake, going beyond the typical local food and having more unique dishes like crepe or frozen yogurt, which is hard to find elsewhere.
The true magic of the lake is revealed at night though. Especially from Friday to Sunday when the roads are closed and people can freely walk on the street it becomes a stage for everyone who wants to present his skills. Whether you are a singer, dancer or artist, there is a huge variety of people just having fun and if you want to participate in a rap-battle you are free to do so.
On my last Friday night, a hip-hop group showcased their talent near the fountain and everyone had a joyful evening. People from the audience that wanted to participate spontaneously where invited to do so and the crowd loved it.
Although Hanoi seems like one big marketplace with vendors going around selling food or fruits from morning to evening, there are a few deliberate markets where locals get their ingredients for the day.
On the northern edge of Old Town near the Dong Xuan Market is one of the traditional markets where you can see how the food is processed and the market curls along small alleys. It is great to experience the daily life of Hanoi at such a market and get your day going by documenting the business of the marketplace.
Make sure to come early to see the seller praising their goods before they are sold-out.
Of course, hosting traditional markets and being one of the busiest shopping area, the Old Town itself is always worth a visit.
You can find traditional shops where craftsmen sell souvenirs or other goods, a lot of clothing stores and of course food vendors. Nothing is greater than strolling through the Old Town with some delicious Banh Mi.
The Old Town is also home to the nightlife of Hanoi with a lot of bars and restrictions for motorbikes. Not only expats but also locals spend their evening there with some beer after the work or when the weekend arrives.
Now during the Christmas time, a lot of streets are also decorated for the season and the lamps are a great opportunity for some Street Photography when it is darker outside.
The Railtrack is part of every travel guide, but also worth a visit if you are interested in Street Photography.
Located in narrow alleys, the Railtrack is surrounded by very old houses and when the sun finds its way through the cramped space you can find endless opportunities to photograph along the tracks.
Play around using the tracks as leading lines to emphasize some details in the background, or maybe you are more interested in the life of the local people?
The Railtrack is also one of the few places that are relatively quiet and for that reason, there are a few very small, but lovely cafes along the route, where you can even enjoy your coffee on small chairs on the rails.
Be aware that this is an active train rout. Trains find their way through the small alleys every day at 3:30pm & 7:30pm.
Traffic on Hanoi’s streets
The first culture clash that I experienced when arriving in Hanoi was the chaotic traffic. It seems that there are way more motorbikes than citizen in Hanoi and everyone is driving around constantly. I have no idea if they even have a destination or are just driving for the sake of it, but I can not fathom where all these people want to go.
For the youth, the motorbike is also a symbol of freedom and independence. It is very difficult to go from place A to B without a motorbike and therefore this vehicle is more than just a means of transport.
With little details, they create their own individual motorbike. More overly they pay more attention to their helmet and masks.
In addition, there is nothing that doesn’t fit on a motorbike. I have seen whole families of 4 persons riding on one motorbike, or goods transported, that wouldn’t even fit in a normal delivery van.
One could dedicate a whole project to the traffic in Hanoi and you might find your favorite spots in the Old Town or near Le Duan.
Old Town is only one example where the streets become a highlight themselves. Small alleys where people gather and spend their day are a real charm and there are a lot of them left in Hanoi.
When the sun hits the right angle, you are also able to create great light rays hitting just above the houses along the alley.
Those are better visited during the day, as they can get quite dark at night and are seldom well-lit.
Dong Xuan Market
According to Wikipedia half of the households of Hanoi interact in some way with the Dong Xuan on a daily basis, for example by buying goods that were handled at that market.
The Dong Xuan market is not only a market, it is like a factory where chaos seems to thrive, but somehow everyone knows what he has to do and the factory works as a unit.
For an outsider like me, it was impossible to understand the process behind all that activity, but I guess I don’t need to understand it.
You can either photograph in front of the Dong Xuan Market seeing for yourself if you can find some moment of clarity to capture all that activity, or you can go inside when the sun shines through the open walls.
When it is cloudy the inside of the market is very dark and doesn’t allow much Street Photography.
Upstairs you can find more of the workers sorting all kind of fabrics and clothes. There you might find a good spot to have an overview of the complete scene from above to get your shot.
Be aware that this is not just some marketplace, but a workplace for most. Like in any other case, you don’t want to obstruct the workers there, especially when they are carrying heavy bags.
Discovering Hanoi Your Way
Before coming to Hanoi I haven’t really read about which places I shouldn’t miss out on, or where should I go. Nor did I have a plan or a route for my stay in Hanoi.
Without any pre-planning, I was lead by my curiosity and visited the places that interested me the most. These happen to be around the Hoan Kiem Lake because I found it the most interesting place to be.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any other Street Photography relevant places and that you should explore Hanoi your way. Maybe you are more interested in the architecture of the french quarter?
Once again, I want to say that Hanoi is so diverse, that to capture it thoroughly one would need months or years to stroll the city.
These are my (heavily biased) impressions of Hanoi and a quick “cross-section” of what is possible in this city.
If you have the opportunity, try to meet up with a local and he will lead you to even more insider tips, that you wouldn’t have found otherwise – and great food probably included.
You can shoot with a flash at night in Hoan Kiem Lake, wait for the perfect sun at the Railtrack or simply take close-ups of the traditional markets.
In terms of Street Photography, Hanoi is an endless place of opportunities that you should definitely explore your way.