Look, there’s a foreigner in town…

Chọ Phú Lám - Phu Lam markets in Binh Tan, Saigon, Vietnam

I have recently moved out of District 1 in #Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to an area called Binh Tan, about 30 minutes from the city.  I am (as far as I know) one of only 3 Foreigners living in Binh Tan (I’ve heard about the other 2, one an American guy and the other a Brazilian girl but never seen them).

It’s interesting being (nearly) the only foreigner in the area.  #Vietnam is still very much a mono culture country – by that I mean foreigners like me are still quite rare, particularly foreigners living here.  In a few suburbs like District 1, District 2 and District 7 you get quite a few foreigners, but out here we are a rare bunch.  When I go to my local markets, it is not uncommon for the vendors to stare at me while I walk around.  They don’t see many foreigners, especially not in the local markets.  When I ask for something in (limited) Vietnamese, they generally smile like Cheshire Cats – a foreigner who can speak Vietnamese!

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I have been trying to learn Vietnamese for the last -7 months – it is a difficult language to speak – much of the pronunciation is very different to English and learning to make some sounds is very difficult (a lot like Vietnamese trying to learn English).  But living here, I am learning more and more every day, which I love.

The people here are so friendly and they love to try and help me out.  I go to my local “coffee shop” just about every night and drink local coffee and sit around and “talk” with my neighbours – there is a lot of laughter, especially when I manage to say the right thing at the right time ,which happens occasionally.  But I like to sit and listen to them speak, even though I understand very little (chút chút) I am improving my comprehension and also my pronunciation. It is slow, but fun.

The images in this post are from Chọ Phú Lam ̣(Phu Lam Market) only a few minutes from my home.  I arrived at 4am to take some photos and the markets were already bustling.  By 7:00am the customers were there in droves. Many of the stall holders start setting up in the very early hours of the morning.  It is a very social place to be – many of the vendors know each other and you can hear them talking and laughing (it will be nice when I can understand them better!) and you get the feeling that this is there work but it is also their social gathering for the day.

Refrigeration is a luxury in Vietnam, so most people, especially in this area, buy their food fresh every day.  Meat is hung in the open and many foreigners are horrified – but when you think about it, it’s not really so bad.  The meat was butchered the day before and delivered to local markets all over the country that or the next day.  It is delivered to the market early in the morning in the relative cool and the bulk kept on ice and only hung on display as required.  People take the meat straight home and cook their daily meals.  Really, when I think about how we do things in the west, I prefer here.  In the west the meat is butchered and frozen.  It is kept for who knows how long before it is delivered to the butcher shops, who then keep it for who knows how long.  The meat is dressed in the butcher’s shop and stored in styrofoam trays, with the blood pooling in the bottom of the tray and then taken to your hoe and frozen or kept in the refrigerator for who knows how long.  Doesn’t sound that great to me any more!

Seafood is generally kept alive and sold live, or slaughtered at the market, depending on what you ask for.  Again, it is pretty well taken straight home and cooked.  Again, it’s a lot fresher than in the west where nowadays it is dropped on ice the moment it is caught and stays there for who knows how long, taken to the markets where again it’s kept for an unknown period of time and then sold to the consumer who puts it in their refrigerator or freezer for who knows how long before it is cooked.

When I was taking the photos, most of the locals thought it was a great laugh and were more than happy for me to take snaps of them and many posed amidst great laughter and cries of “đẹp” (beautiful).  I lady spent quite a bit of time dragging me to different friends of hers for me to take their photos.  All in all, it was a wonderful experience.

Living here in Vietnam is fantastic.  The Vietnamese are a very friendly and sociable people.  They still find foreigners “exotic” and they are more than happy to socialise and spend time helping foreigners.  If ever you want to visit a charming, historical and friendly nation, give Vietnam a try, I love it!

MY Digital Photography runs custom tours across Vietnam.  If you want to experience the real Vietnam, not just the tourist spots, give me a call on +84 122 370 1250 or email me at mark@mydigitalphotography.com.au


10 Tips for travellers in Vietnam

This is by no means an extensive list and I welcome input from you guys.  I had a discussion with a group of expats from America, Canada, Philippines and England last night as well as a few local Vietnamese.

Now, I want to preface this by saying that in my own personal experience, I have had nothing but respect and friendliness from the Vietnamese and I have not personally experienced theft or violence, but I’m not silly and I realise it is out there.

  1. When carrying cameras, phones etc try not to make it too obvious.  One of the biggest problems is that tourists (like me) like taking photos and we extend the camera/tablet/phone at arm’s length on the side of the road.  We’re asking someone to please steal it.  When walking down the street, keep your electronic gadgets on the side furthest away from the traffic.  They ride in pairs and the passenger’s job is to snatch the item.  They are gone before you even realise what has happened.  Same goes for handbags ladies (and metrosexual males).

    Traffic in saigon

    Traffic in Saigon

  2. When crossing the road, look left, look right and keep looking left and right.  In Vietnam it is not uncommon for people to drive on the wrong side of the road.  Once you decide to cross, maintain a steady pace.  Do NOT run.  The drivers here will anticipate your movements and drive around you.  If you run, you stuff up their anticipation and chances are you will get run over.  If you think you are going to get hit, slow down or stop, but DON’T run.  I saw a girl panic and run this morning and I screamed out to her before she ran into oncoming traffic.
  3. Learn some basic pleasantries – like thank you “Cám ơn” and sorry “xin lỗi” and Have a Nice Day “có một ngày tốt đẹp”. Even if your pronunciation is bad (like mine) most people are appreciative of the effort and will go out of their way to help you.
  4. When catching a motor bike or taxi (without a meter) negotiate the price beforehand.  It helps to have an idea of what the price should be, (ask someone if you can) but even if you don’t, act like you do!  It saves arguments when you get there.  same goes for any other service like shoe cleaning (I got caught today!).

    Shoe Cleaning in Saigon

    Shoe Cleaning in Saigon

  5. Be wary of anyone asking if you would like to hold whatever it is they are carrying so they can take a picture of you.  They will try to hit you up for an unreasonable amount of money (I got caught on my first day – I held a coconut seller’s yolk and then got hit up for 150,000 dong – a coconut is worth about 15,000 – 20,000).  See rule number 4.
  6. Street vendors are going to try and get as much money as they can off you.  Whatever price they first ask is probably going to be way too high.  Don’t be afraid to negotiate.  I had a girl ask me for 150,000 dong (A$8.33) for post cards I had bought the day before for 15,000 (A$0.83).  I told her she was “cong cong ding” which means “crazy” (phonetic spelling, I don’t know how to spell it correctly, or even if this is correct pronunciation, but she understood me).  I ended up buying 2 lots for 40,000 (A$2.22) total.  Still paid her a little more (because I enjoyed the bartering) but nowhere near the amount she was asking.

    Street Vendor in Vietnam

    Street Vendor in Vietnam

  7. Try and make friends with locals – they will advise you of the things to do and not to do and help when you are stuck.  I have a few people over here I can ring if I need help.  I most often have to ring if I am trying to explain something which is way beyond my limited knowledge of Vietnamese (non la (hat), ao dai (dress), cam on (thanks)).  It is hard asking for directions when you can only say dress, hat, thanks!
  8. Google is your friend.  I wanted to but a kettle, towel and a couple of other small things yesterday so I searched for “appliance sale” in google maps.  It gave me the address of a shopping mall not too far away and I managed to save 0ver 400,000 dong  (A$22.22), including travel costs, by not buying at a local shop.
  9. Everything in the city centre is expensive.  A Café Latte in the city is generally 85,000 dong (A$4.75) which is about the same at home.  By buying just out of the city, it is anywhere from 28,000 dong to 65,000 dong (A$1.55 – $3.60).  Of course, if you go too far out of the city into the country, your chances of finding a Café Latte that tastes ANYTHING like a Café Latte is remote. Of course the local coffee is much cheaper, but it is an acquired taste – it is a very strong coffee generally served with condensed milk.
  10. Don’t be scared to try the local food. My only rules with food (and I have only ever been sick once in Malaysia in about 1995 and I have been to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Vietnam twice and Vanuatu in the pacific) is make sure it is cooked, be very careful with seafood (I tend to eat seafood early in the day when it is most likely to be fresh) especially in the streets and in local markets – restaurants are normally fine.  If you are eating fruit, don’t eat the skin (eg an apple).  When you buy it in the markets, it has been washed with local water and that will make you sick.  I like to eat fruits like bananas, oranges, dragon fruit (not the skin) and mangoes, otherwise I peel them.  Don’t of course, drink the local water – always drink bottled water.  I even brush my teeth with bottled water and I am careful when I shower not to swallow any water.
    Bánh Canh

    Bánh Canh in Vietnam


Saigon – red lights are cautionary and zebra crossings downright dangerous

In a city of 10,000,000 people, it is estimated that there are 3,500,000 motorcycles and 340,000 cars and this makes for some extremely interesting traffic issues! (I actually suspect these numbers are out of date now – I believe not only have the numbers grown but also the number of cars has grown in relation to the number of motorbikes, but I have no proof of this).

The traffic here is one of my main sources of amusement.  I can sit at a cafe and just watch it for hours.  In fact, that’s what I’m doing now!  U-turns in the middle of a busy street, horns honking continuously, lanes ? what are they, red lights – cautionary at best and zebra crossings, well they are downright dangerous for a westerner.  Two only on a bike? you’ve got to be kidding – you can fit the whole family and then carry a load as well.  Helmets – well they are compulsory and apparently there are large fines for not wearing one – but most of them are softer than an ice cream carton at home. Driving  up the wrong side of the road seems to be totally acceptable as is driving and parking on the footpath.

We teach our kids at home to look right, look left then look right again before crossing the road.  Well here of course they drive on the right hand side of the road, so here it is “look left, then look right, then look left again and start crossing the road, then look left and look right, walk at a steady pace, look left and look right, look left and then right and step onto the footpath after you have looked left and then right – then look left and right again”.

Why did I say zebra crossings are dangerous for westerners?  Because in the west, once we step onto a zebra crossing, the traffic must stop to let us cross.  Here, there is no such courtesy.  The only time I cross at a zebra crossing is when there are traffic lights and even then, remember red lights are at best cautionary and follow the “look left, look right” mantra.

The  worst and most dangerous thing you can do when crossing the road here is run – that’s how tourists get killed here.  If you walk at a steady pace, they will maneuver around you.  If you hesitate or worse, run, then they can’t anticipate where you will be properly and you end up causing an accident. In fact, here in Saigon they have traffic police whose sole job is to help westerners cross the road!

Parking – Vietnamese seem to believe that the footpath is for parking and the road is for walking.  Mind you, I have almost twisted my ankle a few times walking on the footpath, so really walking on the road is probably safer.  You have never seen anyone who can park motorbikes like the Vietnamese – they make sardines in a can look spaced out!

After saying all of this, the traffic flow in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the best I have seen anywhere.  I was recently in Manila, a city of 16,000,000 and the traffic was gridlock.  Look at Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane – traffic is a nightmare.  In Saigon, even in peak hour traffic, the traffic flows constantly, albeit slowly and so far as I have seen, it has the best traffic flow of any city in the world.


Has anyone been crushed to death on a train in Manila?

My first day in Manila was an interesting one. I caught a train. Now, I thought I’d been on a crowded train before, but I was wrong – very wrong. Now, I have been on a crowded train.  I caught a train in Manila from Upper Becutan to Vito Cruz and I have never had such a workout, forcing back the hordes of Filipinos trying to crush the air out of my lungs.  For these people this is a daily experience but for me it was unbelievable.  When it came time to get out, I had a flashback to the days I played Front Row forward in Rugby Union and I had to get out of a ruck – except it was easier to get out of the ruck!  I had to force my way past smiling people – with many of them calling out “push” and laughing and saying “only in the Philippines”.  Even though I was face to face and pushing as hard as a 100kg man can push, no one got even the slightest bit upset.  How happy are these people?

I also caught a number of Jeepneys and Tricycles.  8 peso for a standard Jeepney or tricycle ride (about A$0.20c).  Jeepneys can carry up to 20 people, unless the driver thinks he can squash a couple more on board and the typical ride takes 10-15 minutes.  They are like a local private bus service, doing the same circuit over and over again.  Tricycles are motor bikes decked out to take 7 people and they also charge 8 pesos but when I get on (6′ and 100kgs) they can only take 6 and I have to pay for 2 seats!

No sunrise but a great snake

Carpet Python or Carpet Snake

This Carpet Snake was having a lovely snooze when I stumbled upon him

Mid December, I got up at 4:30am one morning, checked the sky and it looked like it could be a good sunrise so I packed my gear and headed out to catch a great sunrise!  Bugger! The clouds were too low on the horizon and went up too high so the sunrise ended up being a bust.

On the way back from the harbour I stopped off at the Melaleuca Wetlands hoping to catch a few birds or butterflies or even a couple of insects or spiders.  Did I get my money’s worth!  No birds, butterflies or insects, but as soon as I stepped onto the boardwalk I spotted this beautiful Carpet Python  or Carpet Snake as they are commonly known.

It was still early, about 6:10am so when I first arrived he was very sluggish because it was still fairly cool (probably about 23º C) in our neck of the woods.  I say “he” because a) I have no idea how to tell the sex of a snake and b) he was lying on the couch (boardwalk) doing nothing, so I assumed it was a bloke (mind you, I looked but couldn’t find a TV remote anywhere, so I’m not 100% sure).   As I started taking photos he would occasionally poke his beautiful purple/blue bifurcated tongue at me and after a while I realised he only poked his tongue out when I moved – of course, taking a clear and focused shot when you are moving is not so easy!  I took about a hundred or so shots before he started to get a little more active.

I found myself thinking, what a great shot it would be if he strikes!  Then as he got more and more active, discretion got the better part of valour and I decided to leave him to wake up on his own.

It’s not just Food and Water we need..

There are theories of Psychology I learnt when I was at Uni (and I forget who said what now) that once the basic functions of food, water and safety are met, then we need to feed our mind (I think that is Freud’s theory of ID, Ego & Superego, but I’m not going to get hung up on it!).

This is what I am trying to do with the orphans at Allambie Orphanage in Vietnam when I go there in March.  There basic needs have been provided and are being maintained by Suzanne, who is a wonderful role model.  I am going to teach the orphans and there are 6 of them about photography.  No big deal really, but the biggest problem I have – apart from the fact that I don’t speak Vietnamese, well, I can say thank you, and point to someone’s head and say Hat! – is the fact that the kids don’t have cameras!

Allambie Orphanage 2013

Allambie Orphanage 2013

So, in an effort to do this properly, I have started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $7,120.  Why so much?  Have a look at the Allambie Campaign and you can see how I have broken this down.

In brief, I need cameras (preferably DSLR all of the same make – Hello Canon!) so that I can teach them how to control the various element of photography – exposure, shutter speed, aperture, white balance and so on.  Some of these kids are probably way too young for a DSLR so I need some point and shoot cameras as well.

I also want to get them a dedicated computer for Photography with all the software they will need.  It needs to be a recent model desktop with a fair bit of grunt to run some of the memory intensive photography applications like Lightroom and Photoshop.  I also want to get them a commercial website so that they can help to support themselves by selling their photographs.

I have given myself 8 weeks to teach them not only how to take photographs, but to edit them and upload them to their website – pretty ambitious really!

I realise that it can’t really all happen in 8 weeks, but I also have plans to give them on-going training and support via the internet.

I am pretty sure I will be ably helped by one of the kids, Nhi, who wants to go to University to study Photography and Media next year, so he is very excited by this plan.  If things work out the way I hope, Nhi will be my “Main Man in Vietnam”!  lol

Suzanne Hook’s Allambie 2013 Update

Click the link below to donate

Please help me to help the children of Allambie by donating now – $10 is not much to us, but it can make a huge difference to these children.

Vietnam 2014 – a Personal Project

In late February I leave Mackay for Brisbane for a few days to catch up with family and friends, then fly to Darwin for an overnight stay then on to Manila, Philippines.  I am spending a week in the Philippines mainly in Palawan.


A friend of mine has a B&B and Restaurant there and I will be staying there for most of my time in the Philippines as well as some time in Manila.  From there I fly to Ho Chi Minh where the real fun begins!

I was in Vietnam 2012/2013 and went from HO Chi Minh City in the south to Sa Pa in the far north and many points in between. As this was my first trip to Viet Nam I didn’t really know what to expect and therefore had no pre-conceived ideas.  I loved every minute of it.

This trip (March 2014) I am going to be spending the bulk of my time in the South – based in HCMC with trips to the Mekong Delta.  In the Mekong I am really interested in documenting the lives of the Ethnic Minorities there.  I will be using the services of my Tour Guide and friend, Mai Huong while I am there.  Mai is a brilliant guide and a lovely person who has a fantastic network of associates all around Vietnam.

Also while I am there (2 – 3 months) I will be volunteering at an orphanage called Allambie in HCMC.  This is a small orphanage of 6 children under the care of Suzanne Hook, herself an orphan after the Vietnam War.  I am gong to teach photography to the kids and have set up a crowd funding appeal to raise money so that I can get them the equipment they need.  If you can support this appeal I would be most grateful as without your help I cannot provide anywhere near what I would like to do.  If you follow the link you will see what I am trying to do for these kids.

Allambie Orphahage on Xmas Day
Allambie Orphanage on Christmas Day

Allambie’s Facebook 

Donate to help me help the Orphans

I will be updating this page from the day I leave Mackay and will do regular updates during the trip.

Looking forward to travelling with you all!