Crowd of people on scooters in Saigon

Kathy and I just returned from our first trip to Vietnam. I was awarded the opportunity to go there for work and since neither of us have ever been there, we decided to stay for an extra weekend to explore the country a bit.

The first thing we noticed was that driving in Vietnam is crazy. Actually even walking there is crazy since there are vehicles (mostly scooters) everywhere. So crossing the street turned out to be a challenge. Pretty soon however, we learned that all you have to do is keep walking – that’s right – just don’t stop and you’ll somehow make it (safely) across the street :)

My Vietnamese colleagues were amazing and took care of us around the clock. On day they even took us for a day trip to the Mekong Delta, which turned out to be a great opportunity for team building, exploring the culture of south Vietnam, taking pictures and having some work related discussions about cryptography.

Since my “old” D7000 body has been with Nikon for repair, I had a brand new D7000 to play with. Besides that, I packed way too heavy and brought much more photography gear than I actually used. So next time I’ll leave my tripod, filters, flash etc at home and just bring the D7000 with my 70-200mm and 24-70mm lens. I actually didn’t use the 24-70mm much and instead shot most of the pictures with the 70-200mm. The advantage of that approach was, that I could zoom in instead of having to get physically close to the subjects, the disadvantage was, that I had to shoot with faster shutter speeds (1/320 sec and faster) to freeze any camera shake. As a result I had to use the full ISO range of my camera (100-6400) since it was mostly cloudy (lower light), especially when shooting off boats. In those cases my shutter speed was 1/800 sec or faster – add in low light and you’ll shoot at ISO 6400 pretty quick.

What I really came to appreciate on this trip where two accessories: the BlackRapid RS-7 camera strap and the Nikon MB-D11 battery pack for the D7000. The RS-7 makes carrying the camera for an extended period of time very comfortable and the battery pack allows me to shoot for days without having to re-charge my batteries.

Trip to Mekong Delta

Clouds over Mekong River

Sidearm of Mekong river

Floating village on Mekong River

On the tour through the Mekong Delta we saw floating fishing villages, got exposed to the life and culture of people living on or near the river, visited a candy and honey factory and had lunch in a small restaurant near the river. We also paddled a canoe (actually our female Vietnamese captain paddled most) and rode on a carriage pulled by a single horse.

Old Vietnamese woman paddling

Vietnamese canoe captain

While on the boat cruising down the Mekong river, I discovered some really nice backlight and took some shots of Kathy and my co-worker Binh :)

Portrait of Kathy with nice backlight

Portrait of Kathy with nice backlight

Portrait of Binh with nice backlight

Hai Phong and Cat Ba

On Friday afternoon we took a flight up north to Hai Phong, a harbor town about 170km (105 miles) east of Hanoi. We stayed there for two nights before taking a boat to Cat Ba Island, where we started a two-day tour through the rain forest of Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay.

View of port of Hai Phong

Port of Hai Phong

Rusty boat in Hai Phong

Fishermen between Hai Phong and Cat Ba

We knew that our tour began with a five-hour hike through the rain forest, but we falsely assumed, that the hike would be on flat ground. Instead we quickly discovered that the hike was actually leading over a mountain and that turned out to be quite challenging with all the gear we were carrying. My backpack weighed about 60 pounds and if that was not enough it started raining cats and dogs half way in. At times we were crawling on all fours over slippery rocks and through thick bushes. So after about 5 hours we arrived completely exhausted and soaking wet in Viet Hai, a small village on the other side of Cat Ba Island. The last 5km from the village to the small port of Viet Hai we went by scooter, since neither of us were motivated to walk anymore.

Farmer in Viet Hai village

Pier in Viet Hai

Lonely boat in Viet Hai

From Viet Hai we were brought to an island near Ha Long Bay were we spent the night in a bungalow without AC. Fortunately we were so exhausted that we fell asleep really quick. So the high temperatures and extreme humidity didn’t really bother us. We must have slept really tight, since we also didn’t notice all the mosquitos eating us alive. So we woke up the next morning with 50 mosquito bites each :)

Bungalows on island near Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay as seen from our island

At 8:30 in the morning we got picked up by boat and cruised the rest of the day through Ha Long Bay and the surrounding area. At noon we had an amazing lunch on the boat before kayaking through caves and calm but dirty water. We also stopped at a huge cave that was lit from the inside.

Shipwreck near Cat Ba Island

Ha Long Bay

At around 3:30 we arrived back at the port of Cat Ba were we were supposed to take the Mekong Express boat back to Hai Phong. We arrived at the pier at around 3:50pm and the boat was supposed to leave at 4:00pm. It was the last boat for the day from Cat Ba to Hai Phong. We waited in line for a few minutes before getting on board. A couple of minutes past 4:00pm a guy showed up checking the tickets/boarding passes. As soon as he saw ours he started yelling and made us understand that we had to leave the boat immediately. Since I don’t speak Vietnamese I didn’t fully understand what he wanted, but we grabbed our two suitcases and our backpacks and got off the boat. Back on land the guy instructed us to quickly run to another boat, which was about 50m (150ft) away from us. Even though it didn’t look like an Express boat we ran towards it, just to realize that there was no pier to get on board. Then someone appeared on the roof of that ship to gesticulated to throw over our suitcases and then jump on board. While climbing over I realized what was going on – our ship was behind the one we just climbed and had already left the port. It was however in arms reach of the ship we were on. So we ended up jumping from one ship to the other and then entered the correct ship through its engine room.

Fortunately all went well and we made it to our seats before the ship took off towards Hai Phong.

Port of Cat Ba

In Hai Phong we had a driver waiting for us who took us to Hanoi. The drive was no less exciting than boarding the ship – driving in Vietnam is crazy on dry roads, but that evening it was raining, which made the ride even more crazy. But we made it safely to our hotel and flew back to Atlanta the next day.

Conclusion

The pain of sitting 15h (Atlanta to Seoul) + 6h (Seoul to Saigon) in a plane was definitely worth it, thanks to the SECUDE Vietnam team who took amazing care of us and thanks to Mr. Tung of Cat Ba Ventures for organizing an awesome tour around Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay.

Equipment

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