Fisherman in his net near Hoi An

Why getting punched made my day: a Hoi An Photo Tour review

Why getting punched made my day: a Hoi An Photo Tour review

On following fishermen and befriending market ladies… 

Let’s get one thing straight – I’m not a morning person. That is, I’m not one back home in Ireland – I tend to be a “hibernate in a warm bed” sort of gal, at least until the heating kicks in.

In Vietnam, it’s much different. Because if you’re not up having breakfast by 7 am – well, you’ve missed half the day! I’ve lived in Hoi An for 6 months and counting. And most of the time, during the midday heat, I’m working from whatever air-conditioned cafe I can find. (On my personal project, a website to help people with hair loss.)

I’ve also learned to do what the locals do – rise early, rest during the midday heat (or at least, head indoors!) and go to bed early, too. Meaning my circadian rhythms were already adjusted to life here before my sunrise fishing net tour with Etienne and his crew. But it was still pretty damn early!

Our boat left the harbour around 4 am

That’s right. I told you it was early! I teach morning yoga on the beach and for me, a 5.30 am class is only just acceptable. Still, getting up at the seemingly ludicrous time of 3.30 am didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. Because the fizzle of excitement in my stomach, that feeling you get when you’ve to rise at an equally crazy hour to head to the airport before a big trip, was in full swing.

I made my way to the pier with Andy (another Hoi An Photo Tour guide and photographer and, full disclosure, my other half). The other members of our group, having already been collected from their accommodation, were waiting. Each of us guests were a little sleepy (only to be expected) but mainly excited about what was in store.

That’s himself. One, two, three…awww!

And we weren’t disappointed.

We clamoured aboard and before long, were leaving An Hoi far behind to speed through the water. Darkness was just lifting and already there was a pinkish tint to the sky, casting a milky glow over the water beneath. We remained silent, spellbound – the roar of the engine stopping any chance of chitchat, anyway!

We were there – and up so early – to photograph the fishermen hauling in their catch for the day. You may have seen their giant nets, from the big Cua Dai bridge? I had, and I thought that was picturesque in itself. But it’s a whole different thing to get up close and personal!

But first… a test in balance.

A low centre of gravity is key!

Etienne and Andy told us that the best view, shooting downwards into the nets, was obtainable from the roof. Fortunately, I’d been warned in advance and wearing trainers made it much easier to keep my balance on the slippery surface! (I still spent a large portion of my time seated though. Just in case.)

We all found our sea legs before long, enjoying the changing light as our boat glided between the nets. Unfortunately, we missed “the ultimate moment” when the fishermen were flipping the nets to unveil the trapped fish – they were too quick for us! But we did get some gorgeous shots of the rising sun, with the nets and Cua Dai bridge beyond. Meaning we got plenty of other “big moments” to make it extra special. 😉

Now, I am definitely not a photographer.

I was there as a complete novice and knew absolutely nothing about camera settings. But thanks to a few simple instructions about where to position myself and how to lock the light in before refocusing a shot, I ended up with this beauty…

Not bad for a first attempt, right?! If I do say so myself…

Then it was time for breakfast.

We’d spent a good hour on the water – now it was time to explore the market on the other side. But first, food. (Phew!) I’ve never been the type to skip breakfast and I was glad we wouldn’t be so caught up in photography that we’d neglect our poor stomachs.

Definitely not. Etienne led us to a tucked-away area in the market, where tantalising aromas mingled among sudden bursts of steam. The “cô” (auntie) of the house served us up hearty bowls of mỳ quảng as we all marvelled at our lack of cravings for anything other than noodles for breakfast. How quickly Asia can change you! Washed down with a well-deserved cà phê sữa đá, we were suddenly alive and kicking again.

As we ate, Etienne went through some of the key points of people photography in a market. Namely, that the setting is chaotic, and bustling, and messy – which is what makes it fun, but it can be hard to take photos in such madness! 

So he told us to remember 3 things:

  • Follow the light
  • Look for a clean background
  • Try and tell a story

Like I said, I’m a beginner.

So I knew I wasn’t going to win any prizes for my storytelling skills. But I did want something different from my usual “shoot and run” style. (In a photography sense, I mean. Obviously!) 

I wanted to actually interact with these ladies. To shake off my shyness and have some fun.

So, while “telling a story” was probably beyond my capabilities, I could probably attempt the first point. So off I went, muttering “follow the light”, “follow the light” to myself like some kind of mystified moth.

Mission accomplished.

Over the next 2 hours, I followed the light. I found some clean backgrounds. I discovered some wonderfully interesting subjects. And while my skills (or lack of) didn’t quite pay off for me to get “the shot”, I had great fun trying!

As someone who usually has very little patience for these things, I couldn’t believe how content I was with hanging out by a bare grey wall, waiting for just the right person to walk by. And the excitement I’d feel when the shot would – almost – pay off!

The fruits of my stalking labours… 

I thought I’d be nervous about taking photographs of people in a busy market setting. But it’s amazing what a big smile, a little Vietnamese and a lot of arm-waving can get you. As I wandered around, grinning in a somewhat maniacal fashion, I lost any trace of nervousness. Because people weren’t put out at me taking their photo – nope, they seemed to find it hilarious. (Although that was probably just the way I held the camera!)

I speak a teeny tiny bit of Vietnamese – enough to answer the barrage of questions about my marital and maternal status – which certainly helped. But even if I didn’t understand a word, the liveliness of that market and the warmth of its people would’ve kept me fully engaged.

I had all the fun encounters I’d hoped for… and more.

When I was smiling and pidgin Vietnamese chatting with a friendly chuối (banana) seller, a teeny “bà” (grandmother) appeared out of nowhere to jump in on the action. Chattering away behind her mask, I could make out just a few muffled words. Enough for me to answer: “No, but a boyfriend. No, we don’t yet. Because we have no money!” to the questions that every Vietnamese lady seems to love asking.

Apparently, whatever I’d said was hilarious. Because suddenly the teeny little – yet surprisingly strong – lady was punching my arm with sheer glee. The more I laughed and exclaimed in mock horror, the faster she’d punch. Providing great mirth to the other fruit sellers around.

I probably would’ve gotten a cleaner background…if I wasn’t getting so battered!

With a bruised arm and a light heart, I rejoined our group.

It was time to enjoy a cold drink, to swap stories and to compare photographs before our boat ride back. This time, at 8 am and already in the sweltering heat, no one made a dash for the roof. Instead, we stayed in the shade, allowing the rocking motion and the full morning’s excitement to lure (some of us) to sleep.

I’d survived my first photo tour in Hoi An!

Not only did I survive, I absolutely loved it. It was an experience that I’m still remembering with a smile, a week later. I got to take some not-terrible photos, I got to see a whole new place and to meet some wonderful women and I actually managed to catch – a pretty spectacular – sunrise. 

Oh, and I got punched. Repeatedly. 

But honestly? That was the best bit! 😉

Book our sunrise fishing nets photography tour when you visit Hoi An!