Instructor: David Hobby
Dates: Sept. 13 – Sept. 21, 2020
Location: Hanoi and Nam Sai, Vietnam
Hanoi is a city that will challenge your assumptions and expand your beliefs. It is a legit, you-are-not-in-Kansas-anymore Southeast Asian experience: chaotic, traditional, alluring, friendly and not overly westernized.
You’d be hard-pressed as a photographer to ﬁnd a city more compelling to explore than Hanoi. It’s the historic capital of Vietnam, and boasts a thousand years of history.
Take the food, for instance. Hanoi is objectively one of the best street food cities in the world. On every street corner there is yet another new dish to be explored, probably being prepared by someone who has been perfecting the same recipe for decades.
Hanoi is a city in transition. Now is a fantastic time to visit; to witness and photograph the spirit and heart and resiliency of its people. In a world that is quickly becoming homogeneous, Hanoi is still wonderfully unique and interesting.
Our photo workshop, led by David Hobby and Hanoi-based producer Thu Hoai, is designed to help you grow both as a traveler and as a photographer. You’ll learn to approach travel more like a working photojournalist, using your camera as a catalyst to better understand another culture.
Vietnam is not a wealthy country. The economic constraints on display are hard to miss. But so, too, is the ingenuity and can-do approach. Where just a few years back bicycles were the norm, scooters are now ubiquitous. This is a city of young and ambitious people reaching for a better future. You you would be wise not to bet against them.
This trip, in mid-September, is timed to coincide with the rice harvest in Nam Sai. As a result, you should expect hot temperatures both in Hanoi and Nam Sai.
We have a second X-Pedition to Hanoi planned for November, which features cooler temperatures and a different side trip that is not timed to the rice harvest.
* Trip pricing includes Vietnam entry visa, nightly single-occupancy accommodations in Hanoi, daily breakfast, airport transfers, three group dinners, transportation and group lodging on our mountain village excursion. You’ll receive individual and group editing sessions and a selection of classes throughout the trip as part of your 8 days of hands-on instruction with workshop leader David Hobby.
Please note that roundtrip airfare from your city of origin is not included.
David completed more than 10,000 assignments in his two decades as a staff photojournalist before leaving The Baltimore Sun to found Strobist.com. Over the past 14 years, he has led workshops all around the world — including teaching for Santa Fe Workshops in Cuba and Mexico and launching the X-Pedition travel workshop series in January 2018. This will be his 19th trip to Asia.
In 2014, David created the video series The Traveling Photographer, for Lynda.com. Shot on location in Hong Kong, Dubai, London, Paris and New York City, The Traveling Photographer teaches photo enthusiasts how to travel with the heart of a vagabond and the eye of a photojournalist.
Thu Hoai is a professional photo/video producer and lifelong Hanoi resident. Which means that she, a) understands the needs and priorities of photographers, and b) knows Hanoi and northern Vietnam like the back of her hand.
Any seasoned journalist knows that your efficiency when working in a far-flung city is greatly improved by teaming up with a local “fixer,” as such producers are often called. We are very lucky to have Thu serving in that capacity for our trip to to Hanoi.
If she can’t find it, get it or arrange it, suffice to say she knows someone who can.
- Our group is limited to 12 participants, which allows for both individualized instruction and sufficient time to get to know your fellow travelers, both through small-group shooting excursions and full-group nighttime social outings.
- Our itinerary is crafted to give you the most complete photographic experience possible. In addition to daily classes and editing sessions, we reserve generous amounts of “on your own” time for shooting and exploring the city.
- Hanoi, where we will base, is both frenetic and vibrant. But your trip also includes an overnight excursion deep into rural Northern Vietnam. We’ll stay in a small farming village about 15 miles from the southern border of mainland China. Here, you’ll experience a culture steeped in tradition and hard work as our visit is timed to the end-of-summer rice harvest. More info on this excursion in our FAQ section below.
- This is not a tourist bubble experience. You’ll learn to stretch yourself as a traveler, and gain the conﬁdence and experience to travel to a wider variety of destinations.
Our onsite classes typically are held in late morning, when the sun has climbed higher in the sky after the earlier hours better reserved for shooting.
Our first class is devoted to the picture hunt. Sure, you can stalk the alleys like a traditional street photographer. But you know what is more effective? Employing the soft skills that help us to meet people, make friends and gain access into scenes more passive photographers do not get to see.
The next two classes are devoted to a fresh look at the harder, more traditional photo skills. This will help you to improve your photos both technically and artistically.
We’ll teach you how to merge the way your eye and your camera see light — especially at the edges of the day. You’ll also learn strategies for shooting in poor midday light.
Next, we’ll take a deep dive into 3- and 4-D composition. (Not a typo.) A good photo is not a two-dimensional object. It’s a dynamic, three-dimensional box. If you still think “rule of thirds” when you hear the word “composition,” your next rabbit hole awaits.
On day four, we shift our focus toward learning to be a better, more efficient and more conﬁdent traveler. It’s a big world, with many amazing places to see. Why limit yourself to the same short list of popular cities already homogenized by mass tourism? Out-of-the-bell-curve destinations are less touristed, less expensive, and can be vastly more rewarding.
Finally, for our fifth class we’ll pull back to take a 50,000-foot view of photography as a catalyst. How do you better integrate your photography with who you are as a person? How do you differentiate yourself from the crowd? How can you leverage your photo skills with your other expertises to do things others have not yet thought to do? It’s a deep dive.
You’ll learn how to adjust your priorities with the rhythm of the day (and night) to maximize both your personal and photographic experiences. We’ll always be out shooting around the edges of the day — and especially at blue hour — when the city is at its visual best.
When the midday sun lowers your photographic odds (well, unless you are Alex Webb) we’ll be indoors with classes and editing. After dusk, we’ll turn our attention to the vibrant nightlife Hanoi offers: seemingly the whole population comes out on the streets. And that little six-by-ten-foot T-shirt shop you remember from earlier this afternoon has now somehow morphed into a mini bar. And yeah, you’ll bring your camera. But a big part of successfully coexisting with your camera is also knowing when to put it down. Don’t forget to just experience the trip.
Speaking of cameras, X-Peditions are unique for another reason. The name itself is a nod to Fuijﬁlm’s X Series cameras. Small and lightweight, but with fantastic image quality, Fujis are ideally suited for travel photography.
Do you have to shoot Fuji to come along? No, you don’t. But no matter what your camera brand, we will stress the beneﬁts of traveling light. We want you to learn to be more conﬁdent, and less encumbered.
Every possession is a burden. And nowhere is that more true than when you are traveling. Working with less gear on the road is a blessing. It’s more culturally respectful, and safer. Most important, a neckful of cameras should not be the ﬁrst thing your subject notices about you. You want to be seen as a person ﬁrst, a photographer second.
Your camera is a black box that records selected brief moments that happen within your experiences. To upgrade your photos, don’t focus on the gear. Focus on the experiences.
A note about the photos: Several of the pictures on this page (including any image not credited to David Hobby) were made by X-Peditions travelers during our September 2019 trip.
Please note: It is possible that items in our itinerary may shift due to internal variables while in Vietnam. Such is life when traveling in a developing country. But here’s our plan.
You’ll time your travel to arrive in Hanoi on Sunday, September the 13th. Arrive a day early if you like, to adjust. For most of you, the outbound trip to Hanoi will take approximately one full chronological day. But because you’ll likely be crossing the International Date Line, the trip will soak up two days on the calendar. (You’ll get that day back on the return trip.)
We’ll base in Hanoi for the 13th-15th, with classes, edits (both group and individual) and lots of shooting/exploring time.
The night of the 15th, we’ll board a train to travel overnight via sleeper car to the frontier city of Lao Cai on the Chinese border, and then head a further two hours into the mountains to our farming village. That side trip will cover all of the 16th and 17th.
On the 18th, 19th and 20th, we will be back in Hanoi. This will be the weekend, when the city really comes alive — especially at night. Just south of our hotel, the area around Hoan Kiem Lake is cleared of traffic and taken over by pedestrians.
Similarly, north of our hotel, the area is converted into a giant bar and street food crawl. There’s hardly a better way to spend an evening after a day of shooting.
Fancy a bia hoi, Hanoi’s famously crisp and fresh draft beer, served right on the street? That’ll set you back about 25 cents.
Finally, on the 21st we reluctantly head to the airport to travel home. Or some of you may choose to stay in the region and visit another nearby destination.
Throughout our days in Hanoi, you are welcome to choose from our suggestions on where to explore. Or strike out on your own — especially if you have discovered a good story to shoot.
Hanoi offers much to a wandering photographer. The daily din of life unfolds on the streets. You can shoot early morning ballroom dancing at the lake. Or laughter yoga in the park. Or Hanoi’s famous water puppet shows. Or explore the endless warrens of back streets and alleys.
We’ll often have plans for activities in the evenings. Or just head out and explore. Hanoi is full of interesting bars and restaurants.
For music lovers, Binh Minh’s Jazz Club awaits: Great tunes, no cover, drinks with your new friends and a light level low enough to challenge all but the most determined photographer.
Not up for a night out? Take the elevator to our hotel’s rooftop bar to relax and enjoy the view.
Our ace in the hole is Thu, our local producer. She is always on the prowl for behind-the-scenes looks at Hanoi. Perhaps you’d like to spend an hour or two learning to cook a traditional Vietnamese dish? She can arrange that.
Frequently Asked Questions (Please Read Carefully)
Is airfare covered?
We no longer include airfare in our X-Peditions package, and prices have been reduced as a result. If you are new to international travel, we can help you choose a flight. With heavy competition to SE Asian destinations, airfares are often less expensive than most people might expect.
What about getting to the hotel?
We will pre-arrange your transportation from the airport to the hotel. A driver will meet you at a specific location that is easy to find. (You will be in WiFi network at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, including outside in the pickup areas.)
What about our lodgings?
We will stay, single occupancy, in a comfortable hotel in the Old Quarter. The hotel is in a tourist district, which means it is very close to most everything of interest. Also any necessities are easily accessible. But a short walk quickly puts you in the more native areas of Hanoi. The hotel has WiFi.
What about our excursion into the mountains?
Having traveled all the way to Hanoi, we will take the extra effort to push far into rural Vietnam to get well off of the tourist trail. Our excursion will be more spartan than our stay in Hanoi, but also very rewarding.
We will take an overnight train from Hanoi into the Northwest region of Vietnam. We’ll be traveling in a vintage sleeper car, and will arrive in the Chinese border town of Lao Cai at dawn.
Upon disembarking in Lao Cai we’ll transfer to private vehicles for the 2-hour ride into the mountains, arriving at Nam Sai by late morning. We’ll be staying in a bamboo lodge overlooking a river:
You are welcome to explore the valley’s terraced landscapes, seen at the top of this page, and photograph farmers harvesting the summer rice crop by hand. Nam Sai is a village that will stay with you long after you have returned home. You’ll never think about a bowl of rice the same way again.
Later that evening we’ll eat together, family-style, and then retire to a well-earned night’s sleep.
The next morning, the early morning light in Nam Sai is worth getting up for. After a late breakfast, we are off again by car to the frontier town of SaPa. Here, you’ll have some time to explore and grab lunch. We’ll then take a private minibus back to Hanoi, returning to our hotel by bedtime.
Our rural excursion is by no means luxurious. But it offers a glimpse into the less touristed regions of Vietnam, and an eye-opening experience both culturally and photographically.
What about cell / data?
Having full-time internet connectivity is extremely useful when traveling in a developing country. It also affords more safety. Fortunately, this is cheap and easy in Vietnam.
If you are certain that your phone is both off-contract and unlocked, you can pick up a data-only local SIM card very cheaply. Thu, our local producer, can help you.
If your phone is not unlocked, you can rent a pocket-sized WiFi hotspot that will give you WiFi-via-cell wherever you go in the country. (If you’re not sure how to do this, we’ll show you. It’s easy.)
We’ll communicate via WhatsApp, which gives us an easy way to stay in touch with each other, share photos (that happens a LOT) or communicate via voice. WhatsApp is compatible with both iOS and Android, and we’ll have our group set up and running before we leave for Vietnam.
What's the food like?
In Vietnam, the food is definitely a high point. It is delicious, nutritious and inexpensive.
Traveling in developing countries in an exercise in learning to manage the risks in order to get the most out of your experience. This approach is especially relevant for food. You’ll learn several strategies to help to minimize any associated risks, both on this trip and on future travels.
In Vietnam, vegetarian options are available but they are not ubiquitous. So you should be prepared to be a little more diligent and/or creative. Please feel free to reach out to us with any specific questions.
Caveats aside, for most people who visit Vietnam, the food is seen as an overwhelmingly positive aspect of the trip.
What photography skill level is required?
This is a great trip for photographers of all levels. For intermediate and advanced photographers, our role is to help you improve your skills and to open new, unexplored directions for your photography. For beginners, we’ll go slow and there will be plenty of time to talk about process — how to compose your shots, what the best camera settings are for the situation and how to get over any nervousness of doing street photography.
Can I bring a non-photographer +1?
Unfortunately, we don’t allow +1s who are not participating in the workshop. On this trip, we seek to adopt the mindset of working photojournalists. Even under the best circumstances, the spouse/signiﬁcant other/friend will alter the group dynamic for everyone involved.
What kind of gear should I bring?
Gear is a very personal decision and really depends on your personal style and what you hope to get out of the trip. We’re shooting and teaching with Fuji cameras. But the most important thing is to learn to travel light and shoot unencumbered by excess gear no matter what your chosen brand.
Bring a camera you are familiar with. For street photography, most photographers will beneﬁt from a 35mm or 50mm full frame lens, or the equivalent focal length on a smaller chip. For the landscapes and/or rice harvest on our trip to the farming village, a wide lens and a telephoto zoom will probably be helpful for you.
This trip will not focus on photographic lighting. If you want to bring a ﬂash, that’s ﬁne. But it is not at all necessary.
Photographers with less experience tend to bring more gear, often way too much. In truth, there is an opportunity cost to having either too much or too little gear. But as your experience grows, you are likely to winnow your kit down further and further. We’ll talk about this issue speciﬁcally, and at length in the months leading up to the trip to help you make appropriate and informed choices.
The bottom line is that this is your trip and the ultimate decision on how much gear to bring is entirely up to you. But we are happy to help you decide.
Is it safe?
Here is what Lonely Planet has to say about Hanoi speciﬁcally, and we tend to agree:
“Hanoi is generally a safe city to explore, and serious crimes against tourists are extremely rare, but it’s pertinent to exercise some caution. While it’s generally safe to walk around the streets of the Old Quarter at night, it’s best to avoid the darker lanes after around 10pm.”
That’s a fair synopsis, and applicable to most places. To that we would add that situational awareness, and how you act, goes a long way toward reducing the risks of walking around any city with a camera. We’ll talk about that more on the trip.
Much as with food, we also acknowledge the counterargument. You will incur risk from the moment you get into your car to drive to the airport to ﬂy to Hanoi. Learning to intelligently balance and manage the risks and rewards of an experience is a core skill for any traveler.
How much physical activity does the trip involve? Is it strenuous?
X-Peditions trips are suitable for adults in good health. You should be comfortable walking 3-5 miles a day with your photo gear, as that will happen as often as not.
Many places in Vietnam are not physically accessible to western standards. Sidewalks, when present, are often uneven and frequently unlit at night.
There are English-speaking medical facilities in Hanoi. But on our rural excursion, we’ll be several hours away from any meaningful medical aid.
If you have any questions as to whether this trip is appropriate for you, please contact us before registering. We’ll be happy to help.
What will the climate be like?
For the September trip you should plan for hot weather. Our timing on this trip is tied to arriving at Nam Sai concurrent with the annual rice harvest. As photographers, this benefits us both with harvest pictures and with the strong possibility for vibrant landscape photography.
For photographers, pictures trump temperature. But if a cooler climate is important to you, please consider our November 2020 X-Pedition to Hanoi. It will feature a different side trip that is not tied to the rice harvest.
Payment and Cancellation Policy
The fee for this workshop is $3,699. Participants can reserve their place in the workshop with a $500 non-refundable deposit. The balance must be paid in full 90 days before the start of the trip. X-Peditions reserves the right to cancel workshop reservations that are not paid in full by the due date.
If for any reason you must cancel your trip, you must do so in writing via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The following is our refund schedule:
- Cancellation with more than 90 days to the start of the trip: Refund of amount paid, minus $500 deposit.
- Cancellation within 90 days to the start of the trip: Refund of amount paid, minus 40 percent cancellation fee.
- No refund available for cancellations within 60 days of the start of the trip.
There are no exceptions to our cancellation policy.