Mekong Delta Photo Adventure

Mekong Delta, the very mention of this exotic location evokes a sense of adventure and mysteries that is reminiscence of an old world charm, quietly waiting for all its visitors to uncover and discover her secrets.  And what better way to explore this amazing “Rice Bowl” of Vietnam other than with a photography trip?

Cruise boats at Mekong River

A trip to the Mekong Delta invariably involves a cruise on the Mekong River in one of the traditional riverboats made from native bamboo, wood and rattan. Boats like these are an essential mode of transport in swampy areas and rural roads to access the isolated river communities spread out along the expansive delta. To enhance this picture of the boats and the background, I used a polariser filter to accentuate the clouds in the skies and remove reflection from the water surface.

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Boats are one of the interesting features on the Mekong Delta which makes it comes alive. The picture above shows a group of dry goods transporter, with “nose” as painted anchor and eyes painted on the bow to “watch out” for river traffic. As the Mekong Delta is a wide expanse of water and boats being far away, a telephoto zoom lens would be ideal to capture the details. I used my Canon EF70-200mm L IS in this instance. As the boat ride can be choppy, a high shutter speed is advised to avoid blurred pictures from camera shake.

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One of the Mekong Delta highlights is the floating market such as Phong Dien that can be found in Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. Nothing can quite prepare travellers for this visual treat filled with frenzied activities. This river shows you the most unique slice of life at the break of dawn. You will get to experience what it is like being transported right into a National Geographical documentary. To give a “layered” feel to the scene I have described above, I used my Canon EF300mm F4L IS lens at maximum aperture for shallower depth of field.

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To get different angles of the floating market, having a better vantage point is very important. A photography session on the roof deck of a pineapple vendors’ boat is ideal! This can be arranged by tour guide and usually includes a taste of the vendor’s freshly cut pineapple. To capture a bird-eye’s view of the floating market in relation to the surrounding banks of the Can Tho river, I used my Canon EFS 10-18mm STM lens (It would be good to wait for passing boat to fill the frame for a more balance picture).

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Different types of photography such as street, journalistic and people can be explored at the Cai Rang market in Can Tho. This market is just a short ride from the floating market known to be the largest wholesale market on the Mekong Delta. Photographers will have bountiful photography opportunities at every turn. My favourite subject is the female vendors wearing Non La, a Vietnamese palm leaf conical hat. Canon EF300mm F4L IS, at full aperture for the bokeh quality is perfect for better emphasis on one single subject. One challenge of shooting from far using long telephoto lens is that you will encounter people intruding in the frame unknowingly. To increase chances of getting good shots in such sticky situation, station yourself at a spot without traffic obstruction around you. Stay focus and be quick to capture your shot at the right moment.

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In Vietnam, the local stall vendors are known to be hardy people and their accumulative activities contribute a big part to the local economies. They are generally very focused as they go about conducting their business. As such, I minimized distracting them by using my long lens – Canon EF300mm F4 L IS to capture their expression from a comfortable distance. Set your camera frames per second to its highest to capture that moment.

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You get to see things in Vietnamese market that may not be available at your home country. Apart from that, discovering new sights are especially stimulating to a photographer. Like the tray of fruits which I initially thought to be “mini tomatoes” are in fact Vietnamese cherries. A long lens (Canon EF300mm F4L IS) maximum aperture and tight framing helps to focus on the subject. I also used high shutter speed to avoid having blurred pictures caused by movements from subject, camera shake or unsteady hands. As the subject in my case was still, I chose to use Single AF-Point on my EOS80D for better control.

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Cottage industries along the river-land towns in the Mekong Delta present great photo opportunities. You can observe “human-paced” manufacturing and hand-made products (like Banh Cuon, wet rice paper, pic above) in this trip. To convey the laid-back rustic feel with ambiance light, the use of high ISO in the range of 1600-3200, which negate the need for flashlight, is recommended in this situation.

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The local cultural heartland in Vietnam is situated in Tra Vinh, where you can find over 141 Khmer temples, Buddhism is the way of life here. It is not surprising that boys between ages of 15-20 set aside a few months to live as monks (although they may decide on the length of religious rites on their own). Two interesting facts I learn is they can eat meat but cannot kill animals. Secondly they subsist on only two meals daily. It made me realize that we did not see any overweight monks throughout the trip. It’s certainly a great place to shoot some of “Steve McCurry” inspired pictures. Do keep a look out for background details and colours for a more interesting composition.

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Nature also presents itself in some colourful ways in the temples at Tra Vinh. I spotted a group of Monarch butterflies, its saffron coloured wings were just like the monks’ robes. A macro lens or telephoto lens with close focusing distance would render nature in its true glory. I used a Canon EF70-200mm F4L IS in this instance.

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The farming scene in the Mekong Delta, while increasing being modernised, is still very much human labour intensive. Being Vietnam’s main source of income, this is an agricultural miracle that pumps out more than a third of the country’s annual food crop from just ten percent of its total arable land mass. The farmers toiling in the fields are generally friendly and this make capturing their images a more pleasant experience. A long telephoto lens would be ideal to capture farmers as you may have to shoot from a distance while a wide angled zoom is perfect for rendering lines and repeated pattern of the cultivated fields.

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It was a pleasure to pick up tips from Alvin Foo, The Principal of Canon Imaging Academy Singapore, during the trip. With like-minded passionate people on the trip, the scorching 37-38’C afternoon sun was never a hindrance in our quest for that special angle.

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The busy traffic in Vietnam as is known to be a scene filled with hordes of motorbikes. This makes it excellent for panning shots opportunities and other ways of conveying the “mayhem”. There is certainly method in her madness and so let your creativity runs wild. Just be safe and position yourself at right spot for that special shot. Either telephoto or wide angled zooms can be used depending where you position yourself and the pictures you want to capture.

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I like to conclude this article with a long exposure shot  of the famous Ben Thanh roundabout. This million-dollar view literally cost us a “million dollar”  (in Vietnam Dong) as it was the amount required to gain access to this vantage point. I like to think it was money well- spent though. What’s your opinion?

This photography exploration trip was organised by Jetabout Holidays in collaboration with Canon Imaging Academy. Alvin Food , The Principal of Canon Imaging Academy Singapore , will be leading this 3D2N photography trip in November 2016. Details available here.

The author : Jensen Chua is a CanonEOSWorld Council Member and an freelance travel writer/photographer.