Darren O'Brien - Hanoi

We recently invited Darren O'Brien to be a regular blog contributor at Photograd as he travels to Singapore and Vietnam as part of his MA Photography course at Falmouth University. You can catch up on his other posts here.

Darren writes here in his final post about his trip to Hanoi. Enjoy!


Sadly this is my last blog post which means my trip has come to an end. For the final few days I spent time in the chaotic capital of Vietnam, Hanoi.

 Image from Hanoi

Image from Hanoi

I felt at home in the city and enjoyed wandering the streets and capturing life going on around me. Hanoi is a busy and exciting place. The old quarter is a warren of narrow streets lined with shops, restaurants and cafes. So much of daily life takes place on the streets and that makes it great for street photography.

 Image from Hanoi

Image from Hanoi

Vietnam is the third largest exporter of coffee in the world and there are cafes everywhere. Iced coffee with condensed milk is their specialty, perfect for hot days when you've been pounding the pavements. Hanoi also has some excellent street food. Bun Cha was my favourite; it’s a tasty combo of grilled pork slices and meatballs, broth, herbs and noodles.

I spent a little time doing touristy things, but I was really there to enjoy and capture the atmosphere of the city. The city has a great vibe, it feels hectic and relaxed at the same time. Even just crossing the street through streams of scooters feels like a challenge and you feel happy to be alive when you reach the other side.

 Image from Hanoi

Image from Hanoi

The Train Street was interesting to see. People going about their lives right beside the tracks. The train comes through about twice a day and when it's due everyone clears off the tracks and disappears into their homes. Unfortunately the arrival of the train brings a lot of tourists which does slightly ruin the magic of the moment, but hey I was one of them.

Hoan Kiem Lake is a great area for people watching and street photography. This is the main hub for people to get together. In the mornings people jog, do Tai Chi and dance in big groups. On Friday and Saturday evenings all the roads around the lake are closed and the place fills with thousands of people, playing games, watching street entertainers, singing ad hoc karaoke, and walking their fancy dogs.

 Image from Hanoi

Image from Hanoi

Apart from all the interesting sights and scenes, the main thing that made shooting in Vietnam a pleasure was how friendly and accommodating the people are. As long as I was respectful and flashed a smile most people were happy to be photographed. I would definitely have liked a bit more time to get to know Hanoi and dig a bit deeper. I was there for 3 full days but a month would be ideal to really get beneath the surface. I’d also like to spend more time in the newer parts of the city.

Overall the trip was an excellent experience and I have some solid work to go towards my MA portfolio. Now I just have to go through the thousands of images, edit them down and relive the memories.

 Image from Hanoi

Image from Hanoi

I would recommend Vietnam, particularly Hanoi, for any photographer. The mix of dramatic landscapes and buzzing street scenes will test all aspects of your practice.

Thank you for reading and thanks to Photograd for asking me to blog during my trip. Any questions about travelling in Vietnam or my work then get in touch via my website or on one of my social media channels. Bye for now.

Darren O'Brien - Vietnam

We recently invited Darren O'Brien to be a regular blog contributor at Photograd as he travels to Singapore and Vietnam as part of his MA Photography course at Falmouth University. You can catch up on his other posts here.

Darren writes here about his trip to Sapa and Ta Van. Enjoy!


The Road from Lao Cai to Sapa winds its way steeply through the mountains. The hairpin corners are tight and the traffic is chaotic.  Huge trucks trek up the mountains delivering supplies to the villages and resources for the construction boom currently overtaking Sapa. On more than one occasion our driver attempted to overtake a lorry that was overtaking another lorry, whilst dodging vehicles and/or buffalo coming the other way.

 Image from Ta Van, Vietnam

Image from Ta Van, Vietnam

After 5 hours in the minibus we arrived in Sapa.  On first impressions the town itself appears a strange mix of Vietnamese town and a European alpine resort. There is even an old alpine-style church in the main square. We didn't hang about as we grabbed a taxi to take us 10km to the village of Ta Van.

 Image from Ta Van, Vietnam

Image from Ta Van, Vietnam

Roads, distances and timings are a loose concept in this part of Vietnam, especially when you are using google maps to find your home stay. Some of the roads marked on the map are little more than paths wide enough for a motorbike (definitely the best way to get around). As such our taxi driver kindly drove around in circles trying to find our accommodation before realising that the road shown on the map was a footpath. After a couple of phone calls to our host we were dropped off and they came to meet us and showed us the rest of the way.

 Image from Ta Van, Vietnam

Image from Ta Van, Vietnam

If traveling in this area I would recommend staying at least one night in a home stay in one of the villages. There are quite a few in Ta Van village. The principle is that you stay with a local family in their home, although some of them operate more like b&bs. They are a good additional source of income alongside growing rice, rearing livestock and making handicrafts. Our home stay, Lazy Crazy Homestay, run by John and his friends, was a quirky place, with great views over Ta Van, rice fields and bamboo forests. It was a great place to begin exploring the local villages and countryside.

In Ta Van there are plenty of local guides that will take you on a hike, and most homestays and hotels will organise them too. We decided to walk without a guide to the next village and explore the small paths that led through the rice fields and village outskirts. The H’Mong tribes that live in this area are really friendly and as long as you are respectful, no area is off limits. Some of the tracks we followed led directly to people's homes but nobody bothered that we were there and there would always be a friendly face to point us in the right direction.

 Image from Sapa, Vietnam

Image from Sapa, Vietnam

Whilst in Ta Van I worked on a project exploring the Vietnamese legend “Why Ducks Sleep Standing on One Leg”.  The legend goes that in the beginning there were four ducks who only had one leg. They were jealous of the other animals with two legs so reasoned with the creator to give them a precious extra leg. To prevent their new legs from being stolen they hid them from view at night and all the other ducks followed this believing it to be the way it should be. The legend speaks of the Vietnamese attitudes to the land and agriculture, which I am hoping the project will also reflect.

 Image from Sapa, Vietnam

Image from Sapa, Vietnam

After Ta Van we spent a couple of days in and around Sapa town. The town is often covered in cloud and mist which makes for some interesting images. At night the fog, the building work and the neon lit signage lends the town an eerie feel.

I have one more post to come in this series, when I will be exploring the streets of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. After my brief encounters earlier in the trip I am really looking forward to it…...

Darren O'Brien - Ha Long Bay

We recently invited Darren O'Brien to be a regular blog contributor at Photograd as he travels to Singapore and Vietnam as part of his MA Photography course at Falmouth University. You can read his other posts here.

Darren writes here about his trip to Ha Long Bay. Enjoy!


I am sitting at a local home stay in the village of Tavan, looking out over the rice terraces of Northern Vietnam. It is a magical and tranquil environment to be writing this post in.

 Image from Ha Long Bay

Image from Ha Long Bay

I will write about my experience of Tavan later, but for now this is a short post about my trip to Ha Long Bay. Located 3 hours drive North East of Hanoi, the bay consists of around 2,500 limestone islands protruding from the ocean. I will confess that I organised this trip through a tour company (Indochina Junk) and it was all about rest and relaxation. I don’t usually book onto tours as I prefer to do my own thing but it is the easiest way to visit the bay. It felt strange to have everything looked after, from pick up from the hotel to boarding the boat with eight strangers, but it definitely met the relaxing brief.

 Image from Ha Long Bay

Image from Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is incredible, beautiful and breathtaking. It is also incredibly touristy. Our tour tried to find the less touristy areas, but that means you are surrounded by 15 other boats rather than 50. The tour included kayaking, beaches, caves and lots of food and beer!

 Image from Ha Long Bay

Image from Ha Long Bay

Photographically it didn't do much for me, I am not a landscape photographer and it is often hazy at sunrise and sunset. I would love to do a project on the local fishing vessels and how the fishing trade and environment is changing, but that would need more organisation.

 Image from Ha Long Bay

Image from Ha Long Bay

I didn't make much work that will feature in my MA project, but that didn't stop me having a good time.

 Image from Hanoi

Image from Hanoi

Now I am working on a small project whilst in Tavan and Sapa. I have also already spent a couple of nights in Hanoi, either side of the boat trip, and all I can say is that I am looking forward to spending time exploring the streets in that buzzing city later in the trip. Until next time…..

Darren O'Brien - Singapore

We recently invited Darren O'Brien to be a regular blog contributor at Photograd as he travels to Singapore and Vietnam as part of his MA Photography course at Falmouth University. You can read his introductory post here.

Darren writes here about his 3 day stopover in Singapore. Enjoy!


I’m sitting in a hotel in Hanoi and have just had an amazing first meal of Bun Cha. I arrived this afternoon following a 3 day stopover in Singapore. We stopped in Singapore because my partner Sian lived there for 6 years when she was younger and it was her first time back in 20 years. It was my first time visiting the country so it was interesting to see the sights and share the memories. 

 Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by  Darren O'Brien

Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by Darren O'Brien

Driving in from the airport the first thing I noticed was how clean and orderly the city is. Everything has its place and is signposted. We later realised, while watching people clean the river with a boat that scoops up trash, that there is a massive workforce employed to keep Singapore looking pristine. Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world and it needs to keep up appearances.

 Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by  Darren O'Brien

Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by Darren O'Brien

After the 15 hour flight and crossing time zones my main aim was not to succumb to jet lag. So after dumping the bags at the hotel it was straight out to explore. Despite being in South East Asia, some areas of Singapore feel like a European city. Drinking a (very expensive) beer by the river at Clarke Quay, surrounded by an international crowd, I could have been in Amsterdam.

 Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by  Darren O'Brien

Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by Darren O'Brien

In the evening I headed to the Gardens by the Bay complex. This awe-inspiring feat of architecture, sculpture and nature consists of garden domes (similar to the Eden Project biomes) and the Supertree Grove, a group of massive tree-like sculptures that are studded with plants and light up spectacularly at dusk.

 Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by  Darren O'Brien

Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by Darren O'Brien

Nearly everything in Singapore is geared up for either entertainment, shopping or eating.  Every block has at least one shopping mall, in some areas there were two malls opposite each other.  Food plays a big part in Singapore culture and there are many restaurants and cafes, but the best food I ate was at the many food courts. There are some purpose built ones around and most malls have one too. I enjoyed well priced food from all across South East Asia and China. Chicken Rice is one of the local specialties and Sian’s favourite dish, although I am personally not convinced, she ate four plates in 3 days.

 Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by  Darren O'Brien

Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by Darren O'Brien

Whilst in Singapore I was shooting work for my Masters project and found the city a very easy place to shoot in. Though it lacks the bustle and energy of some cities, the architecture and cityscapes are excellent. The people are friendly and you can work in close proximity to people and they are generally happy to be photographed. On the second day we headed to Little India and Chinatown and these were my two favourite places to photograph as there was a little more going on on the streets. The food courts were also good value for photo opportunities.  Surprisingly the MRT trains were also quite fun to work on, again people paid no notice of the camera and if I was noticed people often responded with a simile and a nod of the head, a refreshing change from the UK streets. 

 Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by  Darren O'Brien

Images of Singapore from an ongoing untitled project by Darren O'Brien

Now our Vietnam adventure begins and in the few hours we've been here I can see this going to be a completely different challenge. Until next time……

Darren O'Brien - An Introduction

We recently invited Darren O'Brien to be a regular blog contributor at Photograd as he travels to Singapore and Vietnam as part of his MA Photography course at Falmouth University.

We're looking forward to finding out more about Darren and his travel experiences.


Hi, my name is Darren. I am a Documentary Photographer and photojournalist based in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Between the 25th of March and the 8th of April I will be travelling to Singapore and Vietnam and I have been invited by Photograd to keep a travel diary of my experiences to share on the blog, along with images from the trip. I hope to do this as I travel, WiFi access permitting. Before I leave I want to introduce myself and give a little bit of background to my work.

 From the series  And Other Stories

From the series And Other Stories

I graduated in 2009 with a degree in Environmental Science from the University of Brighton before commencing on my career as a photographer. After experimenting with various photographic disciplines, I settled into my current career as a photojournalist. Over the past few years I have had work published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Financial Times and The Times. In 2013 my project Anywhere But Home was published as a book by Brown Owl Press. This project explored the idea of home whilst travelling in a foreign land, which is definitely a theme that creeps into a lot of my work.  

Deciding that it was time to reflect on my practice and explore a more academic approach to photography I started an MA in Photography at Falmouth University through their flexible learning program. I am currently working my way through the second module and will be using images from my trip to Singapore and Vietnam as part of my submitted portfolio for the course.

 From the series  And Other Stories

From the series And Other Stories

I am also putting together a body of work called And Other Storieswhich aims to deconstruct conventional forms of narrative through street photography and reportage. It is a new direction for me, influenced by the style and ascetic of the Provoke era of Japanese street photography in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It plays with the traditional tropes of technical perfection and, for me at least, is a more personal experience. It has a greater emphasis on feelings and spontaneity which contrasts with my more prescriptive work as a photojournalist.

During my trip I will share work from this project plus some of my more documentary images as we travel around. I am travelling with my partner, Sian, who lived in Singapore for 6 years, so the stop off there will have extra meaning. It will be interesting to see what her memories are of the place, 20 years on.

 From the series  And Other Stories

From the series And Other Stories

For the Vietnam leg of the journey it is really all about exploring somewhere that neither of us have been before. When visiting a new place I have a childlike curiosity and excitement which I hope comes through in my photography. We are focussing on the Northern part of Vietnam with stops in Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay and finally Hanoi.

I look forward to sharing my images and experiences with you and hopefully will be an inspiration to get out and explore.

You can find more of my work on my website and follow me on Instagram and Twitter.