Saturday, February 19, 2011

Travelling in Vietnam – What gear ?

Travelling through Vietnam for 4 weeks brings the difficult question of what (not) to take, keeping the weight/bulk/use ratio in focus. Visited places will include cities, countryside, jungle, seashore, airports (Hanoï, Sapa – Lao Kaï, Ninh Binh, Há Long bay, Húe, Da Nang, Saïgon/HCMV, Mekong delta). So quite diversified.

Travel mode is rucksack and small/light bagpack.

With me:

  • 1 Pentax k20d (without grip)
  • 1 sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6
  • 1 Pentax 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 WR
  • 24Go in sandisk cards (8 8 4 4)
  • Air blower, cleaning cloth
  • “camouflaged” neck strap (no brand name)
  • Small lowepro bag for one camera+lens
  • 2 batteries + charger

What should I have taken with me?

  • P&S camera – like a Canon G12 or Samsung EX1, with tilt-swivel screen
  • Fast zoom lens – 17-50mm 2.8
  • Maybe a 70-200 f4
Lao Cai region
© Quiet Leaf

The story

Your gear will be divided in two categories: day / night.

1.    DAY

When you’re visiting a country, you must know that a normal day is “separated” in several parts by the local people, just as everywhere. In an asian city like Hanoï or Ho Chi Mihn Ville (and more), you’ll rapidly notice a strong gap between the day and when the night falls.  As the lighting will never or rarely be a problem, slow lenses can be used without restriction throughout the day; wide angles like the 10-20mm will be your best tools to capture the spirit of the small and narrow streets, and quite often I used to shoot when sitting as passenger on a motor bike; pictures are taken “sur le vif”, at arm’s length, and it’s impossible to compose them correctly, so wide angle + cropping is the way to go. 

When going down to the countryside, the 10-20mm embraces all the landscapes and Vietnam has so many places where to use it that it will be your main workhorse lens.  The Sigma was the landscape-city-speed lens because it captures so mutch without having to worry about focus as long as you’re using the hyperfocals... tip: always in Av-mode at f/8 !

I used this lens about 80% of the time. 

There’s no point in taking a DSLR if you don’t have an ultra wide lens

Ninh Bihn region
© Quiet Leaf

The DA 18-55 WR (weather resistant) comes in when rain is showing up. Why has it to be weathersealed? Because it rains hard, very quickly and the air remains with a high degree of moisture with the local temperatures (about 30°C), so a rainsleeve wasn’t enough as I used to walk with the camera in my hand, strapped to my wrist, ready to take the picture. Portrait and other snapshots were the other uses of this lens. An UWA alone isn’t enough, you’ll rapidly feel the need of a narrower angle of view to concentrate your pictures on some details.

Preparing food
© Quiet Leaf

 What about a telephoto zoom lens?

Yes, it would have been handy at some moments. But it’s one lens more in the bag... and OK, I hate having to frequently switch lenses. I can let the 10-20 for the day, I won’t miss anything. So as the 18-55mm, it’s wide enough. But a good 70-200mm f/4 is just too big to handle when shooting on the move and the angle of view is too narrow to react quickly to an opportunity. If you really want a telephoto zoom lens, I’d rather suggest a cheap 50-200mm since weight is an issue. 

Há Noi - Old City
© Quiet Leaf
2.    NIGHT

 The cities wake up, life fills the streets, motorbikes are everywhere, everyone eats on the streets, all places are crowded. Light is low and soft, your autofocus struggles, you can throw your slow lenses away, you won’t make any decent pictures (or at maximum ISO... et encore...!). 

Damn, where is my M9 and my Noctilux?

Some circulation, yes...
Há Noi
© Quiet Leaf

So you switch your 10-20mm with your 17-50 2.8 (or a 24 f/1.4 equivalent), or whatever you want but A FAST LENS! At night, you’re less noticeable as a tourist and you can have a drink on the street and quietly take all the pictures you want; there are many top-bokeh-lighting situations, so don’t hesitate! It was my only regret with my gear, not having a single fast lens.

So, this leads me to the important point – what should I have taken with me?

Most important, a point and shoot. Yes, sometimes you want to leave your 4kg combo at the hotel and just walk with just a camera in your pocket for low profile pictures. I secretly consider getting a G12, because its swivel screen in this country would have been so practical.  If you have to choose between your 50-200mm or your point and shoot, drop the lens, take the camera. You’ll enjoy taking different pictures with it than with your DSLR and you’ll see it back at home with the pictures you’ll have taken.

Second, the fast standard zoom lens. Night is 50% of this city’s life, be equipped for it.

How do local people react in front of a camera? 

In the street, they do just as everyone, they’ll stare at you without too much expression. 

Don’t forget, for them you’re the common tourist with a big camera (and a big wallet), nothing more!

Just ask them, a simple movement with your camera and an eye-contact. Can I? Yes? Cool. No? OK.

 Most important tip for that: smile. It’s 99% of the job.

And don’t forget to get hydrated; I used to drink up to 3 liter per day. A fresh 50cl bottle costs 4 to 8000 Dôngs (15 to 30 eurocents)! And, Vietnamese beer (bia in Vietnamese) isn't bad at all (or maybe I was always so thirsty when I sat for a beer!). But I do recommend the Bia Há Noi!

heavy rains in Há Noi
© Quiet Leaf

A street in Ho Chi Mihn Ville
© Quiet Leaf


  1. Awesome reading and very good photographs. I like how you manage to keep everything short and sweet, but at the same time some informative and entertaining.
    (I got the link from Dpreview on the Pentax SLR forum).

  2. Nice report Yann !

    I have to say when I was there I used the 43 Ltd at night - but maybe the 31 Ltd, Sigma 30/1.4 or something evener wider would have been more useful - so long as it's fast !


  3. That 'rumored' Pentax 12-35 would be a wonderful travel lens wouldn't it. That + a longer prime, or 50-135.

    Anyway, loved your pics, was linked from pentaxforums. Cheers

  4. Vincent, I dropped by from DPreview. Beautiful pics and useful gear recommendations. Thank you so much.

    Hope you don't mind if I have additional questions in the future.


  5. I saw your thread on dpreview; I'll try to post something in the next days as I'm very busy right now