5 Reasons Saigon's Markets are the Perfect Place to Practice Candid Portraiture

Before I moved to Saigon in 2012, I’d barely laid hands on a camera. But I was, and always had been a keen observer of people, interested in the daily lives of others and often finding myself thinking in stories around what I saw.

Needless to say, Saigon’s cast of interesting characters and colorful environments, captivated me from day one. And I was eager to share what I was experiencing, with friends and family abroad.

My project, "Somewhere in Saigon" (Facebook/Instagram) was born. However as it grew, I quickly tired of sharing mediocre snapshots. Candid portraits felt like the only way I could convey more meaningful and authentic glimpses into daily life in this fascinating city. But my photos could hardly be called portraits. Candid or otherwise. I knew I needed to develop my skills.  

So I headed to the local markets, the epicenter of daily life in Saigon. Here's why.

5 reasons Saigon's markets are the perfect place to practice candid portraiture

1. Consistent subjects - If you go to a market more than once, you're sure to notice that the same vendors return each day, to their same stalls, at the same spot in the market. Not only is this great for being able to re-attempt failed shots, it’s also good because you can build relationships over time (and even if that time is limited to one day, you’d be surprised how many friends a smile and nod will get you here).

2. Multiple “sets" & lighting conditions - Throughout the markets you'll find multiple backgrounds and “sets”. Each market will present a multitude of varied lighting conditions; from very dark and only lit with a single fluorescent light, to brightest sunlight and everything in-between. Areas covered by roofing or a tarp often create softer which can make for great images.

3. Diverse cast of characters - From men delivering ice to female butchers (see my guest post on Nomadic Notes), motorbike “taxis” waiting to pick up customers, fish mongers, incense and votive stalls, the cast of characters among the vendors and services surrounding the market are very diverse. Not to mention the characters among the shoppers.

4. Plethora of storylines - Vendors often arrive as early as 04:30 to set up. The buzz is invigorating. They prepare their stalls, later climbing in amidst a sea of fruits or meats or spices, chatting with neighboring vendors. As customers the banter gets louder. A choice is made. Continue following the vendors, or begin watching customers, many of whom will take a break to grab something to eat at a nearby food stall. And here yet another story unfolds, that of the food stall vendor and their day. Multiple parallel storylines and people to observe. A dream come true for someone like me. 

5. New scenes nearby - The local markets are always near residential areas. So if when you're done at the market, or if you're just not feeling it that day, take a stroll and immerse yourself in the morning routines of the Saigonese. Children arriving at school grabbing breakfast just outside, infants being “soaked” in the morning sun to lap up vitamin D, old women sweeping their stoops and watering the fresh herbs many keep potted just outside their doors, men having coffee on lawn chairs at local coffee shops. There's no shortage of things to see and photograph.

So, as you've learned, Saigon’s markets and their surrounding areas are rich in the stories of daily life and a perfect spot to practice capturing candid portraits. Now it's just a question of getting out there!

Here are four local markets to get you started if you want to give it a go:

Chợ Hòa Hưng, 404B Cách Mạng Tháng Tám, p. 10, Q3 https://goo.gl/maps/1RBZfKLXZJA2

Chợ Thị Nghè, Phan Văn Hân, p. 19, Bình Thạnh https://goo.gl/maps/e7n89QMJX2P2

Chợ Tân Định, 48 Mã Lộ, Tân Định, Q1 https://goo.gl/maps/YyfUtvGaaEM2

Chợ Hoà Bình, 37 Bạch Vân, p. 5, Q5 https://goo.gl/maps/9rPqNC2oQi82

NOTE: Although it’s safe to walk around the markets of Saigon and most of the areas surrounding them, here are a few things to keep in mind as you explore.

  • Don’t keep your phone/wallet in your pocket. The markets are often crowded and it’s good to be careful with your belongings. I usually keep my phone in my bag and my bag in front of me.
  • Keep a few small bills (5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 notes) handy to make your purchases. That way you don’t have to bring out bigger bills or your wallet.
  • Be careful with your camera on crowded streets. Even in narrow alleys I always keep it on the side of me that faces away from traffic and strung over my neck.

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