Shutter Therapy in Hoi An, Vietnam with OM-D E-M1

I spent the past few days in the picturesque coastal town of Hoi An, Vietnam. Finally, I managed to get some time away from work and just click the shutter button away, while doing that in a quaint, small and peaceful town. I have not had much chance to travel around and I really should have made more effort to explore South East Asia more, there are so many beautiful places, rich in culture and various tradition, all screaming photography opportunities to be discovered. 

I brought along Olympus OM-D E-M1 as the primary camera, an E-M5 as a back-up in case something happens to the E-M1, and four M.Zuiko lenses: 9-18mm F4-5.6, 45mm F1.8, 75mm F1.8 and 40-150mm F2.8 Pro. When I was walking around doing my shutter therapy, I did not bring everything with me of course, usually only one camera (E-M1) and about three lenses (40-150mm Pro stays behind, unless the extra long each was needed). E-M1 and the three lenses weigh less than 1.5kg, all fitted into a small shoulder sling camera bag, easy to carry around without feeling any strain on my shoulder or neck. In comparison to my older days with DSLR E-5 and the Four Thirds lenses, this new combination of E-M1 and smaller lenses made such a stark, huge difference in terms of portability and convenience. And with the 40-150mm F2.8 pro lens, the total weight comes to about 2kg only! 

Beautiful Hoi An, near sunset

Friendly Hoi An farmer

The shops and buildings are old, but with beautiful, traditional design, staying in tact. 

Boat is an important form of transport for the locals. 

The whole place of Hoi An was so slow and peaceful that even the street animals become lethargic

The Street Food looked devilishly delicious. 

Whatever this was, it has got to be hot and spicy

A sight not too common in modern days

I think everyone has a bicycle in this town. 

Hoi An is such a beautiful, small town! There really is not much to do in this town, and if you are not exactly into photography, I think it is easy to get bored. The town is so small you might just be able to explore all places within a day or two. Most of the important places were reachable within walking distance. Shops close quite early, and there were not many forms of entertainments or things to do at night. To come here, is to relax and unwind, and just take things slow, enjoying the scenery and eat all the delicious Vietnamese food. 

I find the people here very, very friendly and approachable. Most of them had no issues with me shooting their photographs, and the odd thing was I ran into more trouble shooting the street food than being stopped shooting portraits of Vietnamese locals. I am not sure why I was not allowed to shoot their food they sold by the street, considering how harmless that could be, and so many people actually selling the same thing, there really was nothing unique or special at all. When I was stopped at one food operator, I just walked another 5 minutes down the road and found the exact same thing and from the many choices I did manage to shoot the few interesting foods that I wanted to. 

The main problem with my time in Hoi An was the weather. It rained about 80% of the time, which could be frustrating. It was not so much of the rain that bothered me, but the grey sky, creating very ugly lighting to the scenery and everything I wanted to shoot. Having an E-M1 helped in the wet weather, and I was using the 40-150mm pro combo when it rained so I had a fully weather sealed system to walk around with. Thankfully the final day before I left, I was given half a day with good weather (it did rain in the morning, but it was fine from noon onward). More than half of the shots shown in this blog were taken in that final day, due to the better weather. 

The younger kids and teenagers were very cooperative when I was shooting them. They did not speak English so it was difficult to communicate, but always, always remember the universal language: SMILE. 

The younger ones were quite fashionable actually, a contrast to their parents' generation. 

Not sure why but they all had some strange attachment to caps. Maybe the sun was too harsh most of the time when it was not raining. 

There are stalls selling gigantic donuts. There are just too many of them, looking at how huge those donuts are, is enough to make me full. 

Just a typical scene of the streets in Hoi An. Always busy, with bicycles, trishaws, motorcycles and pedestrians. 


Trishaw is good business

Of all the food I have seen, I was most fascinated by the purple cake thing. 

I was just too full already, or else I would try each and every one of the food here!

E-M1 did superbly well as a travel photography camera. I almost never missed focus, and I used the electronic viewfinder most of the time. I started shooting when it was not even sunrise, thus it was quite dark, but the E-M1 had no issues handling focus, and surely was good enough to produce some low light shots. Same thing at night, I did some shooting in the night and was very pleased with the results. I brought the tripod along just in case but I found the E-M1 good enough to use hand-held, with the aid of 5-Axis Image Stabilization, wide aperture F1.8 prime lenses and of course, very usable ISO3200 and even ISO6400 shots. Check out the lantern shots below!

I brought along 9-18mm F4-5.6 (loaned from Olympus of course) and it was such a necessary lens if you do want to fit more into your one frame. I did anticipate that Hoi An would be so beautiful and I wanted to have some super wide shots, and I was glad I had the 9-18mm with me. However, I utilized the prime lenses, 45mm and 75mm most of the time. As usual 45mm F1.8 is my primary lens. I would have used the 25mm F1.8 but that lens is currently loaned out to a friend who is having a holiday in Australia (I am sure he is making great images with my 25mm F1.8 lens). For far away unreachable subjects, that 40-150mm F2.8 lens was a life-saver. On the whole, I had a complete system, and can you believe they all fit into the small bag and weighing just below 2kg!

At night, Hoi An is lit up with many lanterns. In fact, in certain times of the month (during full moon) the folks do come out together and light candles on floating paper boats to be released into the river. The lanterns added quite a unique character to this town. The street lighting was quite dim and far apart, hence the streets at night can be quite dark. That made the lanterns stood out even more. 

One of the few entertainment available in Hoi An


MORE lanterns

Boys selling candles. ISO4000

This was an ISO6,400 shots.

The main place to explore in Hoi An was the old town, having many streets with buildings exhibiting very interesting architecture and people selling souvenirs. Within the old town there was a Wet Market, operating for the whole day starting very early in the morning, selling vegetables, fruits, meat, seafood and all sorts of other things related to a market. This place was usually very busy and full of people. I did not spend too much time here because honestly the market scene is quite similar to what I can find in Malaysia, much like my usual hunting ground, Pudu Market, KL. 

Hoi An is a fishing village, and you can find the locals out on the river fishing using some traditional methods. I did have some photographs of the fishing in action but they were taken in early morning with poor light (it was raining most of the mornings I was there, how unfortunate). I imagine the shots must have been quite amazing if I had some good light. 

About 5km out of the town (by taxi or rented bicycle, I took a taxi because I was lazy) you can find a few other places to explore. There were paddy fields (we have plenty in Malaysia, so I skipped the paddy field) and vegetable farms. The vegetable farm was quite a nice place to just walk around and witness how the locals did their farming chores. Watering the plants, sowing seeds, weeding were some of the recurring activities, done everywhere in the farm. They grew a wide varieties of herbs and vegetables and I shall shamelessly say I could not identify that many of them, considering I grew up as a city boy. It was indeed exciting to see where the food came from!

Bike Tour is very popular here.

Sowing new seeds

Can you tell what they are planting?

Very friendly local folk

Such a heart-warming smile!

Morning Activities

Taugeh and... ermm.. not sure what the white thing was

Morning Market People

One man's trash can is another man's seat. 

Some of the things I have learned about Hoi An:

1) Traffic Lights are useless. There were so few here, and in places with intersecting traffic, everyone just navigated through without hitting anyone. 

2) Almost everything is in 1 Dollar (USD). The boat ride would cost you 1 USD. The candle is also 1 USD. So are many of the fruits some of the desperate locals will chase you and try to sell to you. 

3) Happy Hour starts as soon as the sun rose, and extended all the way till late night. Happy hour applies to restaurant food, souvenirs and of course, bars and cafes. Not even sure what Happy Hour means any more. 

4) Never trust the taxi drivers. Always know where you are heading. I stopped at the vegetable village, knowing the beach was only about 1km away so I decided that I would walk to the beach after exploring the vegetable village. The Taxi driver argued that the beach was 5km away. Thank goodness I had Google Maps (and data) with me. 

5) Local food, is amazing. Like seriously I could not get enough!

Very young one

Not sure what is happening here. 

Hanging out at Hoi An

Boat Operator

Another take of the town, in monotone

Mobile generation

Fruit seller, selling on the basket on his motorcycle. 

Boy in an Alley

All in all, it was a blast for me, shooting and having so much fun in Hoi An. 

If you are looking for a quiet place to relax and just spend some peaceful time in, I do not think many places can beat Hoi An. And if you love travel photography, how can you skip Hoi An? Such a beautiful town both in day and night. 

I sure hope you have enjoyed the photographs! If you have been to Hoi An do share you experience. 

Have you been travelling with E-M1? How did your E-M1 do in travel photography? Do share your thoughts, I would love to hear from you, and I am sure many would benefit from your sharing too. 

I leave you all beautiful people with photographs of food I have eaten!!

Cam Lau, local noodle dish in Hoi An. Must try!

Fried Wonton. Very different from what we get in Malaysia (or anywhere else in the world). 

White Rose

Spring Rolls

Can you imagine all these for only USD7? Yes I paid in USD. 

The beautiful lady who cooked all the above dishes. I miss her and her food already. 

One day, I shall visit other places in Vietnam, and perhaps I shall return to Hoi An again!

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  1. Hi Robin. Excellent photos and beutifull colours!!! I have two questions for you. Are these photos 4:3 format? And what type of lens did you use the most?

    1. Dominik, all your answers were in the blog entry. Kindly spend some time reading.

  2. Fantastic as always! Especially love the night time photos. I visited Hoi An about 5 years ago and had a lot of rain then too. I think November is not the best time for Central Vietnam if you want clear skies. In those days I was lugging my Nikon DSLR around.

    Just got back from 3 weeks or so in Singapore and Indonesia. In my opinion the E-M1 is the perfect camera, and certainly the perfect travel camera. Most of the time I had the 12-40 PRO on mine except for when I was at the bird park in Singapore when I had the Panny 35-100 on and some macro shooting with the 60mm. I took the 45 and 17 f1.8 along but didn't end up using either one. But they're so small it wasn't a hardship to have them along anyway.

    1. Hey Glenn,

      Thanks for sharing your exprience! I do agree that 12-40mm pro is the right companion to go along E-M1, after all it is designed as E-M1's kit lens! And zoom is quite convenient too, surely the lens can cover a wide range of shooting conditions.

  3. One of the best posts I have seen on your site!
    Lots of very interesting photos - I think you need to get away from home more often ;-)


    1. Thanks for the kind words! I wish I have more money and time.

  4. Very nice article and pics!

  5. Brilliant images as always. the clarity in them always impresses me.

    Looks like you had a great time and thank you for sharing.

    1. Hey Paul,
      It was a relaxing and enjoyable trip, surely I had a great time! My pleasure to share.

  6. Beautiful shots. Feeling great to take photo in other country right?

    1. Hey Sapphire!
      Yes! I wanna do it again haha

  7. I was at Hoi An just 2 months ago. And i didnt manage to capture even 10% of the beautiful images you have here. Da Nang and Hoi An are indeed beautiful places for still images.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Calex,
      Oh dear, I think you must have some very nice shots too. We all see things differently so I am sure what you said was not true! But I must agree Hoi An and Da Nang are beautiful indeed.

  8. Visiting new places definitely pays off big time! Your pictures look different here (yet still being recognizably yours), and I find this one of your best collections for quite a while. I specially liked the picture "Hanging out at Hoi An", where the white zip of the woman seems to be a long noodle she is about to eat! ;)

    1. Gonzalo,
      Thanks so much for the kind words. Many great photographers advised us to travel far away from our comfort zone, only then we can explore different photography opportunities, hence grow and get better!

  9. Thanks for these wonderful and atmospheric fotos, Robin. I have bee to Indonesia several times and always love making fotos of people over there in Asia because people are mostly open and friendly. Fotos like these have become nearly impossible here in Europe, nobody wants to be fotographed on street, they are aggressive and hostile when they only see a camera in your hands!
    One question though: the two shots of the boys at night with 4000 and 6400 ISO are so beautiful and nearly without noise. How do you do that. Just two days ago I was making pictures of a birthday party, where I tried with such high ISO-values with my E-M1. The fotos are terrible, ages away from your fotos here. What is the secret?

    Regards from the Netherlands

    1. Hey Wolfgang,
      I agree that culturally at different places people do respond to cameras differently. About the high ISO shots, do read my blog entry here. I shared my thoughts on high ISO shooting with Olympus cameras.

  10. Robin, I do read your blog on a regular basis and very much enjoy the pictures you are sharing. But this time it was an extraordinary pleasure. So many beautiful shots from a lovely place (which is very exotic to me as a European) ! I really love the composition, colors and clarity of your work. This article is definitely something to enjoy twice, if not more :-)

    Greetings from Germany

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words karsten!!! I did not do much really, Hoi An is so beautiful it is a crime not to shoot beautiful photos!

  11. great photos there Robin! I have question here, do you set the focus point beforehand or do you use auto and let the camera choose the focus point? I had several occasions that I thought I got the shot and then realised that it was focused not on the subject I wanted.. But then, if I set the focus point beforehand, it will take time to change to other focus point and miss the moment. Dilemmas every time.

    1. Hey Davy,
      Yes, I set the AF point to exactly where I wanted to focus. When I was planning my shot, I already decided where I wanted my subject to be in my frame. I moved the focusing point to that location in the frame before I compose my shot. I understand you will find it time consuming and difficult if you adjust the focusing point when you are framing your shot. So plan ahead, know where your subject is in your frame before you shoot, get the AF point ready (arrows, up down left right, should be quick once you are used to comtrolling them without even looking) and as you frame your subject the focusing point is exactly where it should be.

  12. Hi Robin,

    Wonderful series mate!
    Any chance you'd do a comparison between the new Olympus 40-150mm f 2.8 lens against the 50-200mm SWD 4/3 version in the near future? Image Quality and Speed?

    Eric V
    Edmonton Alberta Canada

    1. I do not think I will be using the 40-150mm pro lens for a while. If I do get the chance I shall compare.

  13. Very visually refreshing images, Robin. But frankly your food shots should be illegal. Once again while viewing them I drooled all over my keyboard, ruining it. The boss caught me switching his keyboard for mine and said, "WFT? Next time you're outta here!"

    1. Hi Ulfie,
      I think my food shots still have a lot to improve on. I rarely show food photographs but food is such a huge part of Vietnamese culture, and surely it is a huge part of my travel experience!

  14. Nice photos, makes me want to visit Vietnam with my EM5. Thinking of getting an em1 or em 10 because of the focus peaking for manual lenses. Does the focus peaking function still work when I am shooting a video?

    1. Hey Chris, no, unfortunately for Olympus no focus peaking in video.

  15. I'm hungry now! Great set of pics Robin, making me want to travel and taste some exotic food again.

  16. Hello Robin,

    just beautiful as usaual. I really like your way of "looking", great!

    Regards Frank

  17. Robin, November still rainy season. December is peak and may January would be a good time to go. You may want to visit Hue, the ancient capital. The tombs are a favourite location. Quiet as well and worth a wander. Hue is about 2.5 hrs from Danang.

    1. I wish I have more time in Vietnam. Perhaps next visit then.

  18. For your information & correction, that's Cao Lau (in Vietnamese: Cao Lầu), not Cam Lau.
    Great photos, the sharpness is really impressive. If you visit Vung Tau, I'll show you around.

  19. Hi Robin, enjoyed your post! Did you use any flash in your food shots?

  20. Hi
    Your site give me a useful information about photograhics.

  21. I always enjoy your color, composition and human interaction in all of your photos.

  22. I want to visit Hoi An because of your pictures :')

  23. Hi Robin - some wonderful images you captured.
    It would be nice if you could put which lens you used in the captions...

  24. Wonderful wonderful set of photos Robin!

  25. Please come back to there again. Welcome to Vietnam.

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