Recently I teamed with Vietnam in Focus as their guest tutor on their inaugural “Reunification Express” photo tour from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). Although primarily a rail expedition, there were several overnight stops to break the trip, staying on authentic Indo-Junks in Bai Tu Long Bay, travelling bumpy country roads to our homestay accommodation and seeing some incredible and diverse scenery you could imagine. AND the food; and the delicious Vietnamese traditional Cà phê sūa dá (slowly filtered coffee with condensed milk and ice), all contributed to an amazing and unforgettable journey.
During the ten days of the tour, I used the EM1MkII along with the 12-100mm, only choosing the smaller and lighter 25mm and 17mm when I wanted something a little more discreet for street scenes, or when another Olympus user (we had 3 on the trip) wanted to “borrow” the versatile beast. I also had a spare body, the EM1mkI that somehow kept disappearing into the hands of the other photographers who were rather taken with its small size.
Our photo journey commenced in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, kicking off with an early morning start photographing Long Bien Markets from Long Bien Bridge as well as the trains that rattled across the old bridge. It is utter chaos in the markets with masses of people, colourful vegetable, fruit and meat stands and motorcycles weaving their way through the crowds, balancing their wares on any spare part of the cycles.
We left the markets to wander along the tracks where houses are sandwiched closely together only metres from the railway lines. People carry on with their daily lives on the tracks; washing, cooking, playing and chatting with neighbours, only being interrupted when a train passes by. Since my previous trip to the tracks last year some of the homes have now been opened up as cafés, residents realizing the potential of the extra tourism dollars.
Later in the day, our tour took us through the old French Quarter of Hanoi with a stop at St Josephs Cathedral and Tay Ho District that is known for Hanoi’s largest freshwater lake, called West Lake. Notable point of interest at West Lake is Tran Quoc Pagoda that was built in the 6th century, making it Vietnam’s oldest temple.
The next morning our group caught the early morning “Reunification Express” train to Hai Phong, a major seaport city in northeast Vietnam. After a very short minibus ride, we boarded our private Indo-China junks (we had two for our group of 10) to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Bai Tu Long Bay and the culinary delights from our private chef. Once we left the busy port, the scenery becomes something out of Jurassic Park, except in water, with huge forest-covered, limestone Karsts, rising out of the water like silent sentinels guarding the bay and its inhabitants.
Bai Tu Long Bay is home to many floating Vietnamese villages and their people who eke out a meager living by fishing, pearl farming and tourism. Over the years, through education and participation, the people of Bai Tu Long Bay are slowly cleaning up the bay; removing plastic from the waterways and generally making a Herculean effort to lessen the pollution, thus assisting the environment and increasing tourism and their livelihoods. After disembarking our Junk after a peaceful 1-1/2 days cruise, we journeyed south by mini-bus to our next destination in the Ninh Binh province, stopping along the way at many points of interest including capturing a magnificent sunset at Giao Xu Trihn Xuyen church before continuing the journey to our Muong Ethnic Minority homestay.
The following day was full of exciting and diverse areas to visit. From being rowed through Van Long National Park on primitive long boats, to visiting Bich Dong Caves with its three different Pagodas, Ha Pagado, Trung Pagoda that is built into the limestone mountain and Thuong pagoda; to walking up Mua Caves mountain with over 500 uneven, steep steps to the top with unsurpassed views over mountains, rivers and rice fields.
Late that evening we left our Ninh Binh homestay, travelling a short distance by mini-bus to board the overnight “Reunification Express” to our next destination, Hue, the Imperial Capital. After checking into our accommodation mid morning, we spent some time capturing trains as they passed through a narrow stretch near Hai Van Pass and the coast. Although the emphasis of the tour was “trains”, we still had plenty of time to photograph the local oyster farmers tending their stock, ladies shucking the oysters on the side of the road, a local fishing village, as well as gate-crashing a wedding shoot.
The following morning, we were back on the train bound for Hoi An. This would be one of the most beautiful legs of the journey as the train wound its way along the coast, climbing upwards through jungle-clad mountains through the Hai Van Pass and onto Da Nang. Whilst on the train we had plenty of time to do some editing of images, capture fellow passengers, guards and the spectacular scenery.
Hoi An is a perfectly preserved example of a Southeast Asian port with a mixture of the French colonial period, Chinese and Japanese architecture. This is one port of call I would have loved to have spent more time exploring, especially the quaint city itself. There is so much to see and photograph. Yes it is very touristy, however this UNESCO Heritage site has more to offer than meets the eye once you start wandering through the many narrow streets. And it doesn’t take long to realise why it is dubbed the “Yellow City”. I hope to return for a longer trip next year.
Early next morning our group travelled to the local fishing area to capture the chaotic fish markets on the beach. So many trawlers were moored in the bay with their crew rowing back and forth in their tiny basket boats bringing in the night catch. Would you call it sustainable fishing for the future? I doubt it, however it is their way of life.
We left the beach to visit the busy modern city of Da Nang to photograph the bay with hundreds and hundreds of colourful fishing boats. Not only are the boats their way to make a living they are also home to the Vietnamese fishermen and their families. During our walk some of our group managed to access a shipbuilding yard. No “health & safety” officers here. We were free to wander at will, dodging the workers, tools and logs. Back to our accommodation, dinner and pack up for our final leg of our overnight “Reunification Express” journey; Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh, seventeen hours of clackity, clackity clack.
After checking into our Ho Chi Minh hotel, the remainder of the morning was free for us to rest, recharge camera batteries, download images etc in preparation for our afternoon city walk and night cruise along the Saigon River. What we didn’t realise was, being Liberation Day, there would be an amazing fireworks display during our cruise. Ho Chi Minh at night is very beautiful, so capturing the cityscape and fireworks were more genres to add to what we had already been treated to. And to add to the degree of difficulty, we’d be capturing these from a small rocking vessel.
Our final morning of the tour; another early start to wander along the tracks, photographing trains, the chaotic city streets with hundreds of people and motorcycles and the local residential areas and markets.
Ho Chi Minh is so different to Hanoi. Both are busy cities, however Ho Chi Minh is just that, another city. Hanoi still has that old world charm that appeals to me.
From north to south, so many photographic genres, different customs, delicious cuisine and wonderful adventures. The beauty of travelling with Vietnam in Focus is their inside knowledge of the regions. Our leader, Irish born, international photojournalist, Colm Pierce, co-owner of Vietnam in Focus and an Olympus EM10mk1 user, has resided in Vietnam for over 10 years. Also, accompanying the group on the journey was Duc Nguyen, Colm’s extremely knowledgeable assistant.
Next year my plan is to join the “Reunification Express” once again. This time the trip will be in reverse, arriving in Hanoi in time for the Liberation celebrations.
This story first appeared in the August 2018 edition of Olympus Passion Magazine.
Karen Willshaw is an Australian photographer mainly focusing on underwater and landscape photography. An avid adventurer, she has joined Vietnam in Focus on several epic tours, first as a guest, and latterly as a very popular photography tutor. Karen is an Associate of the Australian Photographic Society and has won several international awards for her work, including from National Geographic. She lives on Cocos (Keeling) Island, in western Australia.