Vietnam Travel Tips and Highlights by photographer Réhahn
French photographer Réhahn is currently on a mission to photograph all 54 of Vietnam’s tribes. It’s taken eight years of travelling Vietnam by motorbike to explore the remote corners of the country but, with 51 tribes and counting, he’s set to finish his ambitious Precious Heritage project in 2019.
A travel photographer inspired by Steve McCurry and Sebastião Salgado, Réhahn is originally from Bayeux in the French region of Normandy, but he’s lived in Vietnam since 2011.
Known as the ‘photographer who captures the soul’ of his subjects, he’s famous for his colourful and intimate portraits from Vietnam, Cuba, Malaysia, India and beyond.
Here, he tells Graeme Green his seven personal highlights from his adventures across Vietnam.
Vietnam Travel – Insider Tips
1: How to get off the beaten track: TRA SU
Tra Su is a peaceful place in the Mekong Delta with almost no other tourists. It’s a vast area of mangrove forest and swampland that’s home to many different kinds of colourful birds and animals.
It’s around 30 kilometres from the town of Chau Doc, down in the south of Vietnam and close to the Cambodian border.
The area has a particular type of palm trees you can’t find anywhere else in the country.
Vietnam Tribes – Precious Heritage Project
I've spent my last eight years in Vietnam travelling throughout the country for my Precious Heritage Project to photograph al 54 of Vietnam’s tribes.
It’s taken me all of that time to find 51 of the country’s 54 tribes.
I discovered Tra Su by chance when I was looking for the Khmer ethnic group.
I love to spend time there, exploring the local villages and waterways.
2: Coolest City: HOI AN
Hoi An is a small city on the central coast of the country, surrounded by rice paddies and the beach. It’s my favourite city in Vietnam.
I’ve lived here in Hoi An since I moved to Vietnam in 2011 and I have my Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum here, which contains my photos of Vietnam’s tribes, as well as tribal costumes and artefacts I’ve been given.
I love the lifestyle and optimism of people in Hoi An. The sun shines all year and the minimum temperature we get is 20 degrees, which is ‘summer’ in Normandy, where I’m originally from.
They call Hoi An the ‘Yellow City’.
Early morning, between 5 am to 7 am, there are no tourists around, and I love walking, waiting for the sun to come onto every narrow alley, catching a young student on her bike or an old lady coming back from the market.
A river crosses the city and during the flooding season, Hoi An becomes like Venice, which gives unique photographic possibilities.
3: One of my favourite tribes: THE CHAM
Many of the tribes I’ve photographed in Vietnam have become friends or even like family. But I have a very special bond with the family of An Phuoc, a seven year old girl with incredible blue eyes.
She’s from the Cham tribe, who are specialists in making pottery and silk.
An Phuoc is known as the ‘girl with the cat’s eyes’ in her village. Her sister has one eye blue and one hazelnut.
We often hear that eyes are windows to the soul, and it’s true: eyes really can tell a story.
The family is now in my ‘Giving Back’ project because the photo of An Phuoc is one of my bestselling photos.
Sapa, An Phuoc’s older sister, wanted to be a photographer, so I bought her a camera. I bought a cow for the family and bikes for the girls. I believe it’s my responsibility to give something back to the people I photograph.
4: Incredible region to explore: DONG VAN
The Valley of Dong Van, in northern Vietnam, is inhabited by 14 different ethnic groups. I spent many days there to find various different tribes to photograph.
The area is much less known than Sapa, which is popular with tourists for hiking and meeting local tribes.
Dong Van feels more like real rural life. Every five kilometres, you experience different architecture and different clothing, and it feels like crossing into different countries.
You can visit weekend markets and spend time in local villages. Some people are harvesting hemp and others are working on costumes in front of their house, but they always invite you to taste their rice alcohol.
The Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark is up here, which is a scenic mountain area, protected by UNESCO, up on the border with China.
The views in this area are incredible.
5: Most interesting cultural experience: BATIK
One of my most memorable experiences from travelling around Vietnam was getting to try making Batik with the Hmong people in Pa Co village, up in the north of Vietnam.
Batik is a technique that consists of drawing on hemp fabric with beeswax.
Hmong Traditional Costume
The Hmong decorate their traditional costumes with this ancient technique. It’s such a fascinating process and the patterned textiles look beautiful.
You can pick up examples at local shops or markets, but it’s also possible to have a go yourself, which is a really cool experience.
6: Most spectacular road trip: MA PI LENG
Living in Vietnam has given me the chance to work on my longterm project and to really explore the country.
I only drive motorbikes here and it gives me a feeling of freedom I’ve never felt anywhere else, setting out on my bike to visit new places and meet new people.
I never know what I’m going to find.
Ma Pi Leng is one of the highest passes in Vietnam. It’s a ‘must do’ for any travellers exploring the northern region of Vietnam.
The road from Meo Vac to Dong Van is called the ‘Happy Road’ by the locals. I love riding my motorbike there and stopping at the top to admire the valley below.
The scenery is fantastic, with winding roads, green valleys and towering mountains.
7: Favourite tribal costume: THE RO MAM
As a photographer, I’m very curious about different cultures, ancient traditions, clothing and textiles. When I meet tribal people and photograph them, I’m sometimes given traditional costumes and other items that I collect and preserve at my museum in Hoi An. Many of the tribes aren’t able to make their costumes anymore and their traditions are starting to fade in some areas.
Meeting the Ro Mam was an intense and memorable experience, especially as I’d had to wait three years for authorization.
There are now only 12 of their traditional costumes left, and I was honoured to be given one, as well as a pipe and a basket, to showcase their culture at my museum.
The remaining 11 white costumes are kept safely by the Ro Mam as treasures, as they know no one makes them anymore.
Réhahn is currently working on a project to photograph all of Vietnam’s 54 tribes. He has photographed 51 so far, with plans to meet and photograph the final few tribes in 2019.