street barber

Things I Saw in Hanoi, or Street Photography is Difficult While Drunk

Photo Essay, Street Photography, Vietnam

After my recent trip to Hanoi, I ended up deleting about 98% of my photos. It was a photo-editing blood bath. Let me tell you why. 

On my first morning in Hanoi I went a sports bar shortly after sunrise in order to watch game seven of the World Series. I drank coffee most of the game, but my new found and incredibly drunk Chicagoan friends insisted I have a beer after the 7th inning stretch. I grudgingly went along and ordered a brew.

After a rain-delay, extra innings, and several rounds of beer with my new friends, I was a little tipsy totally hammered. I stumbled out of the bar like a worthless drunk and snapped photos all afternoon like a crazy person. Most of the photos were fuzzy and unfocused, illustrating more my mental state and less of what I saw. Looking back through them, it was hard to know what I was actually aiming at. Case in point:

drunk Hanoi street photo

The next two days, even while sober, I continued to find the photogenic and interesting city a challenge to shoot. The narrow streets, constant buzzing of motorbikes, and frenetic pace of life made it hard for me to focus my attention. I was constantly trying to capture the energy instead of finding order in the chaos. Someday I will return and I am sure I’ll get better shots after learning from the experience.

Anyhow, here are a few keepers from the weekend.

Hanoi Street Photos

Orange vendor in Hanoi

Overloaded motorbike Hanoi

boy at a coffee shop

man on bike

Hanoi sunset

hanoi market

Hanoi bikes and bricks

kids on a bike

Bahn mi vendor

Hanoi communist flag

street barber

hanoi street shot

conical hats in Hanoi

Have you been to Hanoi? How do you photograph hectic cities? 

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~

40 thoughts on “Things I Saw in Hanoi, or Street Photography is Difficult While Drunk”

  1. “Most of the photos were fuzzy and unfocused, illustrating more my mental state and less of what I saw.” Haha! Brilliant! 😀
    I’ve had a handful of experiences with drunken photography too. The most extreme case was when I was totally drunk, rode a bicycle while shooting with the camera in one hand (using auto focus of course). I got some decent and even interesting results, but had to delete the majority of the photos.

    • That made me laugh out loud thinking of a drunk person riding a bike with a camera! I can imagine that there would be some unique shots in there.

      • My memory played a trick on me! I didn’t use autofocus.
        I looked up the post to find the photos and in the comment section (from when it was still a fresh memory), I learned that I used:
        “High ISO, f-stop 4, continuous shooting, manual focus set to some random spot in the far distance, one hand on the steering wheel, the other hand on the camera with a finger on the trigger. Pedal, steer and shoot away into the night.”

        “The success rate was approximately 10% (If I remember correctly I came home with around 220 shots and ended up publishing 23 of them- the rest was deleted).
        A typical example of what’s called ‘spray and pray’.”

      • Ha, that is awesome. Spray and pray. That can be a fun way to get photos, like out of a bus or train window, but I think your method from a bike while drunk is best.

  2. Well, first of all, Go Cubs Go! It was a joyous night for me, but not so much for my Cleveland-born husband …

    Drunk or not, I am terrible at photographing hectic cities. There’s just too much jumble to capture – too many people, wires, bikes, animals, cars, food stands, etc. I do best if I really narrow my focus. I still take a bunch of the whole-scene shots because it’s fun to look back at the chaos, but like yours, many of mine end up in the Trash. However, I really like some of the motion you’ve captured, inadvertent or not!

    • Those must have been some tough days around your house. At least it was a great game and series. And he has LeBron.

  3. Well the keepers are certainly worth keeping. I think my fave is the guy getting a shave. So typical of that part of the world, and India. And the night shot is a beauty too. We loved Hanoi – so much going on that’s so very different from our part of the world. I didn’t know much about photography then, but I think I still got some okay shots. In hectic cities I just fire away at whatever appeals to me (like your shot of the guy lounging on his motorbike! That’s a great shot) and hope the background doesn’t interfere too much. Sometimes I get lucky.

    • Thanks Alison. I saw the guy getting the shave and just walked over and snapped it. That was one of the few times I was able to get something I was happy with. Agreed that Hanoi is a great city. It is so green for an Asian city.

  4. Todd Duffey Writes on Things says:

    Your meshing of Apollonian and Dionysian artistic mindsets balance each other out. Well done. And quietly hilarious.

  5. Hanoi has long since been on our list! Judging by your photographs, I’d say you’ve managed to capture some pretty great moments there. 🙂 I’ve seen my husband capture snaps like these absolutely sober!

    • HAHAHA. Hanoi is a great city – go when you have a chance. It is different than most Asian cities because it has a lot of parks, trees and lakes, but it is still crazy and busy.

  6. that traveling nurse says:

    Well these turned out pretty good. Love the motion and chaos captured here specially the crazy stunts they pull on their motorbikes! Are those for real? Looks like a scene from a circus act.

  7. Yeah, I’m not so great at shooting hectic anythings, including cities and diapers that need changing on some infant. And I don’t usually even pick up my camera if I’ve had a brew or two because I’m from the film generation and never wanted to waste expensive film! Old habits die hard. I like the ones the others above like, and love the one with the family on a bike…I still haven’t taken a good shot of five on a bike. The guy on bricks…that looks painful!! But I really like the one with the sign for Thanh Dung…well, for the obvious Badfish connotation one might conjure.

    • Ah yes, film would change everything. That would have been an expensive and wasteful endeavor. I didn’t notice the Thang Dung sign, but I did see a Phuc Cafe and Dong Hotel.

  8. Adventures in Kevin's World says:

    If you were a famous photographer, someone would find a way to spin that first photo as great art.

  9. Hilarious as always! You made me miss Hanoi with those photos. I lived there for four years and really need to make an album but boy will that be hard as I have thousands of photos! (Not to mention all my dog in Hanoi ones as a subsection!) I secretly got some of my best shots after a couple boozy brunches at the metropole. I think it made me loosen up and engage with people more. Although there is always a sweet spot I suppose. With polo it’s two beers to take away the fear but any more and you come off at a gallop… With street photography I think you can go a lot higher but there are still limits…

    • Totally agreed. I think a couple of beers can relax the photographer and make it easier to approach people, but too many and people will run away from the drunk person!

      How did people react to your dog there? In Thailand, many people seem to have irrational fears of dogs, or maybe not irrational, since there are so many unpredictable street dogs.

  10. hmmm – 2% success rate is my experience when sober 😉

    Your photos were even more fun with the story attached! Your comment about trying to capture the energy instead of finding order in the chaos struck a chord with me. Perhaps that’s my flaw and why street photography just doesn’t work for me – I’m trying to capture a mood rather than a vignette within the mood. Thanks for the tip – I’ll keep it in mind.

    My favourite photo – well, the 3rd one in with the fully loaded bike is a great one. Photos like these always make me take notice … but also the feature photo with the on-the-street barber shop. Love these little pop-up businesses 🙂

    • Come to think of it, my success rate sober is about 2% also, so maybe I should just shoot drunk and make it more fun!

      I saw the street barber and just went right to him and shot it. They both thought it was funny. I was sober on that one.

  11. It looks like you recovered quite well! I’m always a fan of the scooters/motor bikes laden with people and loads of stuff. Those folks must have great balance (they stick to tea).

    • Those scenes always crack me up and I naturally want to shoot them. I wonder If I’d get over that if I lived in Hanoi? Yes, their balance is amazing, but I guess they’ve been doing it their whole lives.

  12. Such a nice read, Jeff, he he 🙂

    Whatever be the success rate, the series you shared here simple awesome and gives a great idea on the day to day life in the city…

    Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

  13. Pingback: I Like My Cities Gritty and Chaotic, But I Loved Singapore Anyway | Planet Bell

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