The New Year festivals in northern Vietnam are just the ultimate experience for photographers and cultural adventurers. Bold claim, but seriously – in my opinion, there’s no better way to get an up close, authentic encounter with hill tribes like the Hmong and Dzao, at a really colorful, joyous time of year.
I recently caught up with Tung Phan, our photographer leader for Days of the Dragon 2024, and here’s what he had to say about our upcoming adventure!
Photos by (clockwise from top) Mike Stanbury, Tung Phan and Duc Linh Nguyen
Alex Hi Tung, what is it about the New Year festivals in Sapa that makes them such a great experience for photographers?
Tung First of all, the scenery is stunning at this time of year. It can be a bit cloudy and misty, but this makes for awesome, moody landscapes. Also, the local ethnic minorities, such as the Hmong and Red Dzao, wear their traditional clothing during New Year celebrations. These outfits are not only photogenic but also rich in cultural significance. With all the dances and rituals going on, we’ll have excellent chances to capture the color and customs of the hill tribes.
Alex How is the Days of the Dragon experience different to ViF’s other tours?
Tung With this one, it’s the timing more than anything else. There’s only a small window annually when you can see Northern Vietnam in its richest colors, the first two weeks of Spring. The views are outstanding, and the cultural activities of ethnic minorities are most vibrant during this time. Added bonus: you won’t see many other foreign or even domestic tourists in the area at this low-season time. Only nuts photographers like us!
Alex What will be the biggest challenge for guests on this tour? (Be it in terms of photography, travel, communication with locals, or anything else.)
Tung I think in terms of photography, the main issue will be selecting images, because of the staggering amount of photos we’ll be taking! It’s easy to get trigger-happy in such circumstances. Some travelers may also worry about feeling awkward when joining the crowds of tribal people or coming to people’s villages. But the locals are very friendly, happy to see foreigners, all good with photos, and of course a drop or two of local corn or rice wine is always a nice ice-breaker! And you’ll also have myself and our Hmong guide A Hoa to help with any communication.
Photos by (clockwise from top) Adrien Jean, Brian Ng and Colm Pierce
Alex As a seasoned photojournalist and guide, what tips would you give to travelers taking photos at traditional festivals in Vietnam?
Tung First, look out for details: festivals are rich in intricate decorations, costumes, and rituals. Especially keep an eye out for spontaneous moments that make for compelling photographs. Interact with locals: engage with the people you meet at the festival. Giving people your time can lead to more authentic and intimate photo opportunities. This will help to capture the essence and spirit of the event. Finally, don’t get too caught up in photography! Immerse yourself in the festival, enjoy the culture, and participate in the celebrations.
Alex Sounds awesome. What are you personally most looking forward to about this tour?
Tung I feel especially privileged as a Vietnamese person to experience the festivals of the north during this time of the year. Only a fraction of the population have a chance to ever enjoy this. Plus, apart from the photographic opportunities, I’m looking forward to the mouth-watering specialty foods of the area. Of course it’s even more of a pleasure with a small group of fellow photography lovers. Can’t wait to see everyone!
Photographer Tung Phan will lead our 2024 Days of the Dragon tour. Tung Phan is a Hanoi-based photographer with a Master’s degree in International Journalism from Sussex University in the UK. With a solid foundation in journalism and broadcasting, in particular with Vietnam Television (VTV), he brings a unique perspective to his work, capturing the essence and stories of Vietnam through the lens of his camera.
Welcome the New Year with the hill tribes of Northern VietnamExperience the Gao Tau festival, Hmong fire dancing & lunar new year festivities with the Dzao, Hmong & Tay people during far Northern Vietnam's festival season. Cameras in hand, we'll explore the spectacular landscapes and colorful tribal communities around Sapa on a photographic adventure to remember. In the company of our photography team and local Black Hmong guides, this is the ultimate, authentic encounter with Vietnam's hill tribes.