Vietnam: definitely one of my favourite places in the world to travel. The people are wonderfully open and kind, the food is phenomenal and the photographic opportunities are limitless. I’ve been several times now to various regions of the country. But, for this visit, I wanted to do something different: snake my way down the Ho Chi Minh Highway on a bicycle.
When considering this trip, I knew I’d need to keep luggage to a minimum in order to enjoy the ride and not weigh myself down. I had a change of clothes for when I got off the bike at night, some spares for the bike and, of course, my camera. The camera for this trip would be my X-T5. Until this journey, I’d really only used it for work and I wanted to experience the process of working with the 40 MP files after coming back from a two-week trip.
I spoke not so long ago here about limiting yourself in terms of focal lengths and how that can benefit your photography. When photography is the secondary goal of a trip, this is even more important. Eliminating gear I wouldn’t use would also ensure it fit nicely into my EVOC Capture 7, a wonderful bag recommended to me by the one and only Bert Stephani.
The one focal length I never leave at home when I visit Vietnam is 23mm. In my case, that meant taking the XF23mmF1.4 R WR. To keep the weight to an absolute minimum on the other lenses, I decided on the XF16mmF2.8 R WR for my wide-angle option and, finally, the XC35mmF2 for something that I could use for a closeup portrait if the situation arose. This would also give me the opportunity to produce some additional images for my Lens Guide of the 35mm while I was away.
I started this trip on a cool cloudy day in Hanoi. With the bike built, I jumped onto the QL 1A for the first leg of my journey. While the first 100km or so weren’t particularly photo-friendly, they did mean that I’d be close to any services I might need and end up in the city of Ninh Binh, where I could get anything I might have missed in my preparations. Arriving before lunch, I decided to head over to the nearby tourist area of Tam Coc for lunch and to see Bich Dong Pagoda, which I had missed on my previous visit to the area.
This proved a good opportunity to play with the XC35mmF2. I immediately spotted an opportunity with the incense sellers at the gate to the temple. I’d just need to wait for there to be nobody in the background and for the ladies to ignore me after their initial sales pitch. So, I enquired after the prices of their goods and joked a little so they’d be comfortable with me. Once I saw an opening, I stepped back into position and made a few images. The challenges here were to be far enough from the ladies so they wouldn’t pay attention or be disrupted by my presence and also to frame out the patches of sky between the karsts in the background. The 35mm was the perfect tool for this.
I’m glad I did take the 35mm out that day as the next 450km of riding would be marked by a permanently falling heavy rain. With no choice but to power on as I had a train to catch in a couple of days’ time, I put the XC35mm into the ziplock bag with my passport. Its completely plastic construction and lack of any weather sealing did not inspire confidence in that weather. A drop of water in the lens wouldn’t be the end of the world, but a drop of water getting in the lens mount and damaging the X-T5 would have been much more troublesome!
With the built-in rain cover on my Capture 7 and plastic bags covering everything else, I set off through the rain and made my way along the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Through the rain and mist, I could see the karsts rising up around me and eventually giving way to larger mountains and farmland, but my overall visibility was low. I didn’t get too many opportunities to actually photograph this gorgeous part of Vietnam.
Once I’d come down from the rainy mountains, I stopped by the city of Vinh for a few hours to shower and wait for my train down to Hue. After sweet-talking the hotel into some rush laundry and warming up a little, I sat at the window of my room and watched the storm clouds roll over Vinh. Aside from the occasional firework going up in some pre-Tet celebrations, the city had a very Gotham-esque vibe to it that evening that begged to be photographed. Having just one angle that wouldn’t include one of the walls of the small balcony, I settled on this simple frame to document my time there.
Thankfully, the weather cleared up for my journey from Hue to Hoi An. When I awoke in Hue, the sun began to break through the storm, and I was greeted with fleeting moments of light. I always love to photograph the pace of cities with a slower shutter speed, so I spent a few moments over at a local morning market to make use of that before hitting the road.
While this final section could easily have been a single day’s riding, I split it into two so I could enjoy the sights along the way and photograph some of my favourite areas of the country again. Between Hue and Hoi An, a few lagoons and plenty of beach-side fishing villages can be found. With the beautiful mountains of central Vietnam in the background, it seemed criminal to just pass them by! So, I took a couple of easy days and enjoyed some photography.
When I finally arrived in Hoi An, I was greeted by what my photographer friends in the area call “Hoi An Fog Week”. This is the one week between winter and summer when the combination of temperature and humidity fills the mornings with a blanket of fog. It didn’t take a lot of twisting of my arm to wake up for sunrise again and get out for this spectacle. Since the rice-planting period was all but over, we headed for a market on the river to enjoy the unique light of the foggy morning.
Wrapping up the journey
Would I have changed anything? You mean, aside from having north Vietnam’s regular cool and dry January weather during my visit? I think I would have found a way to take my XF33mmF1.4. The XC lens performed well but lacks the extremely accurate autofocus and beautiful wide-open feel of the XF lens. Of course, I’d also have been able to trust it in the wet weather, which would have meant even more photographic opportunities. Since my last lengthy cycling journey, my fitness has improved somewhat, so I’d likely opt to carry the larger lenses next time.
Moreover, I learnt that I would like to take this journey more slowly next time. This time around, I had only seven days to complete half the country before my wife arrived, which gave me a fixed arrival time at my destination. What I would like to do next time is to have a full month to cycle from north to south. That would allow me plenty of time to take the smaller roads, detour and seek out more photographic opportunities.
But how did the gear perform? Well, the X-T5 was a great tool every step of the way. It held up in all the different weather Vietnam threw at it, as expected. The IBIS was a very useful addition in many situations, allowing me to be sure I wouldn’t see any camera shake as I slowed my shutter down. Overall, it was like working with a souped-up X-T3 and the extra resolution didn’t really bother me in terms of storage or processing when I returned home.
By the end of the trip, however, I’d filled my 128 GB memory card, which ended up being a little over 3000 images (much of this number would actually end up being attributed to my lens choices). I charged the battery once on day 5 and once on day 11 of the trip. That’s quite a solid performance in my books, considering I was connecting it to the phone app to transfer images each day as well.
In terms of the lenses, the 23mm performed exceptionally well, as expected. The 16mm and 33mm produced great images but did miss focus more than a few times. This is somewhat disappointing as it meant that I couldn’t trust either lens fully. The same cannot be said for the 23mm, which nailed every single frame.
Overall, it was a great journey and allowed for some photographic opportunities and exploration I don’t experience at home. I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this little ride with me. Until next time, Happy New Year of the Cat, everyone!