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Off The Beaten Path: Hoi An

Woman in cone hat walking along rice paddies

Street photography is probably my favorite style of photography. I love the candidness and authenticity of it. It allows me to become a visual storyteller. However, I will be the first to admit I am the biggest coward when it comes to making these types of photos. I feel like it’s such an awkward intrusion, for both myself and the subject. So I’m usually THAT person who stands off in the distance snapping photos, then scurrying off before the subject has a chance to object lol. But, I’m challenging myself more and more to step out of my comfort zone and being confident in my approach instead of hiding behind trees, spraying a praying.

So, on this particular morning I wandered off the beaten tourist path, as I always do on my travels. I believe that in order to fully understand the depth of a place you have to look beyond the “glitter and gold”, and get to the grit. Find the places that has not yet been tainted by tourism, and you find the heart of a city/town. At any rate, as I meandered through a maze of alleyways this lady caught my eye. For a moment I just stood there watching her carry on about her morning chores. When I realized I was kinda being a complete creeper, standing in a tiny, desolate alleyway watching this woman scrub laundry, I figured I’d snap a quick photo and move on before I was busted.

Everything about this moment made for a great photo…the candidness, my positioning in the alleyway, the window shutters that perfectly framed the woman, the open and airy light where the woman sat. It was all perfect. However, I didn’t have a zoom lens with me and my nerves wouldn’t allow me to move any closer so I snapped the photo from where I stood.

off the beaten path

But I wasn’t satisfied. This photo did no justice for the moment. So I stood there battling with myself “Do, I move closer, or just go with what I’ve got?”

Determination propelled my feet forward. Fear made me do an about face after only a few steps.

“No, no, no. I can’t do this!” I told myself. “This is this lady’s backyard. I can’t just waltz into her space and say ‘Hey! Can I take your photo?!’ It’s too weird.” By this time I’m having an all out conversation with self, trying to convince self that I can do it. Once more, I attempted to walk towards the light and again, my feet failed me. If someone were watching me they’d probably assume I was crazy…talking to myself, pacing back and forth…admittedly, not a good look.

So, after a few moments and a few deep breaths, my Billie Bad Ass self convinced my less than confident self that we can do this. We ARE going to do this.  We are going to step out of our comfort zone, step out of the shadows and do this. So we did.

I slowly, at a snail’s pace, walked towards the lady. I didn’t want to alarm her. After all, I was a random black woman wandering into her very secluded backyard courtyard. Awkward much? After inching closer and she still hadn’t looked up, I offered a small, sweet “Hiiii…”

She still didn’t hear me. Great. So then, a little louder I said “Helloooo.” Finally, I’d gotten her attention. She didn’t jump or reach under her seat and whip out a machete (which in my back and forth debate I’d almost convinced myself that she would), so I took that as a good sign. I bowed, as a sign of respect, and flashed the biggest (and I’m sure goofiest) smile I could muster. I motioned my hand to her and said “Đẹp” (the Vietnamese word for beautiful) and held up my camera seeking permission to make her photo.

She didn’t understand.

We went back and forth for a few moments; neither of us understanding the other. Finally, I’d decided to just bow out gracefully and spare us both anymore awkwardness. I graciously thanked her and told her it was ok, not to worry, and apologized. I was proud of myself for even getting that far. So, in my mind…mission accomplished. I’d tried.

But before I could turn to leave the lady stopped me. She went into her home and brought out another young woman, her daughter perhaps. I thought “Oh God! Please get me outta here! I don’t even want the photo anymore. My pits are sweating. This is too much!” But, nonetheless, I tried explaining to the young woman what I wanted and I guess at some point it clicked because the older woman sat back down and posed for the picture. I motioned for her to just keep doing what she was doing but again, language barriers. So I didn’t push it. I took what I could get.

In my haste to get get the shot and get out of there, I didn’t think to change my camera settings. First photo, way overexposed. Crap! I absentmindedly adjusted a few settings. Second photo, still overexposed. Ugh! Everything in me wanted to just get out of there. I stood to bid my farewells and thank yous, but I decided just one more. So, I apologized, again for the inconvenience, and asked her for just one more. She obliged. With fidgety fingers I adjusted my settings again and prayed for the best. It worked! And even more, the lady was more relaxed and less, awkwardly, posy in this photo.

off the beaten path

Of all the million photos I’ve taken in Vietnam, this is hands down my favorite. Technically, could it have been a little better? Yes. But whatevs. It took a lot of self convincing and comfort zone crushing to capture this shot. I’m happy.

It was as if that one little feat gave me an heir of confidence that carried me throughout the day. I found myself not hiding so much in the midst of tour groups (that I wasn’t even a part of) in an effort to be discreet. Instead I allowed myself to get as close as I needed to in order to get the shot I wanted.

Here are a few more photos from off the beaten path. Hope you enjoy!

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off the beaten path-8 IMG_1498off the beaten path-7 off the beaten path-6 off the beaten path-5 off the beaten path-4 off the beaten path-3off the beaten path-1 off the beaten path-2off the beaten path-25

***Some of these photos were taken on a walking tour. 


  • Kezia

    These are absolutely gorgeous!! Kudos to you, girl. I suffer from the exact same paralyzingly fear of upsetting people or weirding them out and thus not getting the photos I dream about. You are an inspiration! Hoi An is one of my favorite places in the world and I’m going to try to be more confident in my approach when I visit for a second time next month. Excellent work!!!

    January 27, 2016 at 1:50 am Reply
  • Christine K

    Wow, really enjoyed these photos and your narrative. Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience.

    March 23, 2016 at 11:02 pm Reply
  • Cameron Seagle

    Loved the shot of the hands. Some great photography here. Happy travels!

    March 28, 2016 at 10:11 pm Reply
  • Voyager

    Wonderful photo essay that capture life in all its simplicity and grandeur.

    March 29, 2016 at 6:13 am Reply
  • Cynthia

    Gorgeous pictures! I fully relate to you with this feeling of being an intruder. When I just started my world journey, I kept to taking photos of landscapes. Then I knew I was missing something and it was shots of people. But I felt so shy to do this! So I first started taking photos with my zoom lens, keeping a big distance between me and my targets 🙂 Now I am in Turkey and the people here are so beautiful I just had to overcome my shyness! Slowly but surely I’m getting there and the Turks are helping me a lot with this! I dare to approach them, ask them if I can take a photo and they are loving it! I thought I was an intruder but people actually love it to have their photo taken! And it’s a great way for a brief moment of feeling connected. Keep going, you’re photos are beautiful!

    March 30, 2016 at 4:58 pm Reply
  • Lance Kerwin

    Nice pictures. I could totally relate. Taking photos of random people can be challenging.

    March 30, 2016 at 8:24 pm Reply
  • Taylor

    Your photos are seriously stunning. You do such a great job of capturing the moment.

    April 2, 2016 at 1:00 pm Reply
  • Corinne

    Colby, What a fantastic photo essay. I love the preparation of the rice fields and that ox…but all your photos are captivating and colorful!

    April 4, 2016 at 3:36 pm Reply
  • Alexa Meisler

    Beautiful photo essay. Truly feel like I experienced Vietnam! Loved hearing your story of the photo & your process! Really loved the pics of the rice fields.

    April 4, 2016 at 7:46 pm Reply
  • Renne Simpson

    Yes, yes, and YES!! I love this post so much since I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of immersing yourself in the local culture of your destinations. Loved your photos and this line “I believe that in order to fully understand the depth of a place you have to look beyond the “glitter and gold”, and get to the grit. Find the places that has not yet been tainted by tourism, and you find the heart of a city/town.” Great post Colby 🙂

    April 5, 2016 at 4:55 pm Reply
  • Archana Kapoor

    Beautiful pictures and very well narrated Colby… Thank you for sharing your experience….
    Also, love your gravatar pic… 🙂 Cheers!

    April 7, 2016 at 2:29 pm Reply
  • Barbara Pereira

    Great photos, love your compositions! I am planning to visit these countries and that’s how I ended up finding your blog. I am happy I did. Can I ask which lens you used to take this pictures? I would like to get a lens that can capture good portraits but also the landscapes around. Thanks!

    February 17, 2018 at 11:27 am Reply

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