Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

Posts tagged ‘landscape’

Just below the clouds (day 2 in Ha Giang)


Day 2 in Ha Giang, and the weather improved markedly. The clouds lifted a little, and the rain was more drizzle than deluge. Just as importantly, I was able to keep my feet warm and dry through the expedient of wearing plastic bags inside my trainers (a technique I first employed at the Reading festival in 1992). It’s not a great look, but I’m perfectly happy to sacrifice a little dignity in exchange for warm feet.


On the first day, it felt for most of the time as if we were driving through the cloud, but as we drove from Quan Ba to Dong Van on day 2, we were just below it. This made all the difference. I could actually see the beautiful rocky landscape around me. I think the combination of the dark green of the wet vegetation and the grey/white of the sky makes for some quite dramatic pictures.


The conditions weren’t ideal for landscape photography, I suppose, but I’m not really an expert in this genre. I’m not very technical when it comes to this kind of shooting – I didn’t use a tripod or an ND filter, and don’t have a clue about hyperfocal distances and so on. I’m very much of the “f/11 and shoot” school. But I think it’s hard to take a bad photograph in Ha Giang, as the surroundings are so spectacular. One of the things I remember most about this trip is the sensation of the landscape unfolding in front of me as I drove through the mountain roads, revealing one glorious scene after another.





The long and winding road

Late in the afternoon, we reached the village of Sa Phin, and visited the palace of the Hmong kings. This was the home of the Hmong rulers of the province in the early 20th century.





Public transport, Ha Giang style

This last picture, taken just outside Dong Van towards the end of the day, is probably my favourite from the entire trip. I think it has a kind of “end of the Earth” look, with the last few rice terraces clinging to the hillside, before the gentle slopes give way to the jagged limestone peaks beyond.


Heaven’s Gate in the rain (day 1 in Ha Giang)


I finally made it up to Ha Giang. I’ve been wanting to go to this part of northern Vietnam for years, but always found a reason, or made an excuse, not to. Ha Giang is Vietnam’s northernmost province, on the border with China, and is home to twisting mountain passes, otherworldly limestone cliffs (or karsts), barren rocky plateaus and lush green rice terraces. The best way to travel through this province is by motorbike and, while I am happy driving my Honda Wave through the chaotic traffic of Hanoi, I’d always been wary about taking on the mountain roads of Ha Giang. But, finally, I spent a few days there at the beginning of last month,  driving through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. I spent half of my time thinking, “I should have done this years ago.”

Early November isn’t the best time to visit the province. The rice harvest is pretty much over and the weather, as I soon found out, is especially unpredictable. On the first day, we drove from Ha Giang City to Quan Ba. Unfortunately, the weather was very much against us. Persistent, heavy rain made driving difficult and the views, not to mention the road ahead, almost invisible. Most of my attention was focused on keeping my motorbike upright, avoiding the numerous potholes in the road and negotiating slippery hairpin bends. My impractical, lightweight trainers were soaked through within minutes of leaving Ha Giang City, so my feet were frozen. Rain had been forecast, but I was expecting drizzle, the occasional shower, not this relentless downpour. I’d like to say that I kept my spirits up and remained optimistic about the rest of the trip, but in reality, I got very grumpy and felt like going home.

As we approached Tam Son town, the sky cleared very slightly, and I was able to take this one half-decent photograph. This mountain pass is known as Heaven’s Gate; the view is undoubtedly impressive, and is one of the iconic images of the region. But the light, on this day, was flat and uninspiring. It’s not the best picture I’ve ever taken, but it does provide an accurate record of the day. Fortunately, the weather, my mood and the photographs improved over the next few days, as I hope you’ll see over my next couple of posts.


You are cordially invited to join me on Instagram, where I’m re-posting my favourite pictures from the last five years, one per day, in no particular order.


Mekong views

130524-277-editedJinghong, Yunnan province, China

Looking through the pictures I’ve posted from my Mekong trip, I noticed something missing: there are hardly any pictures of the river itself.  There are a few reasons for this, I think.  I naturally incline towards pictures of people – they’re the pictures that I’m best at, and that I most enjoy taking, but I do sometimes feel the need to broaden my repertoire a little.  I don’t have many regrets about this trip, but one of the few I do have is not getting more good landscape and river shots.  I remember being on a long bus journey in Laos, between Savannakhet and Pakse, speeding past rice paddies in the rain.  As the rain stopped and the late afternoon sun emerged, the fields were lit up in the most beautiful, soft, warm light.  You’ll have to take my word for it, because I didn’t get a picture.  As I said, I was on a bus at the time, and that bus wasn’t stopping for anyone.  I spent a few days in Pakse after that bus journey, but never saw that beautiful light again, so that rice paddy image only exists in my memory.  This is just one example of a great picture that I didn’t take, along with the countless early morning street scenes that I was too lazy to get up in time for.   So I’m a little disappointed with the landscape pictures that I actually did take – they’re just not as good as the ones in my head, or perhaps it’s just that they don’t grab me as immediately as my best people shots.   Whatever the reason, I neglected to post many Mekong landscapes (riverscapes?) while I was travelling, so I’ve collected a few together to post now.  These pictures were all taken between May and August this year.

130611-005-editedPak Beng, Laos

130613-089-editedLuang Prabang, Laos

130615-078-editedLuang Prabang, Laos

130619-045-editedFerry across the Mekong (1), Luang Prabang, Laos

130627-086-editedView of Laos at dusk from Nakhon Phanom, Thailand

130718-371-editedStorm clouds gathering, Kratie, Cambodia

130807-255-editedChau Doc, Mekong delta, Vietnam

130821-056-editedVinh Long, Mekong delta, Vietnam

130821-062-editedVinh Long, Mekong delta, Vietnam

130821-173-editedFerry across the Mekong (2), Vinh Long, Mekong delta, Vietnam

Blue skies and green fields


At the southernmost point of Laos, the Mekong river widens and splits into countless channels and streams as it encounters thousands of small islands in its path. It’s like a dress rehearsal for the Mekong delta to the south. The exact number of islands varies with the seasons, as the water level rises and falls, but the area is known as Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands.

There are several little tourist enclaves dotted around the waterfront areas of the islands, particularly on Don Det, while inland there are tiny villages, and acres of rice paddies. I spent my days reading and relaxing, sheltering from the sun, before venturing out for some late afternoon cycle rides. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Laos before heading on into Cambodia.

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Nong Khiaw


Nong Khiaw, in Luang Prabang province in northern Laos, is the kind of place that adjectives like breathtaking and stunning were invented for. A bumpy three hour bus ride from Luang Prabang town, the village is on the banks of the River Ou, surrounded by towering (there’s another one) limestone karsts.    My landscape pictures don’t begin to do it justice, as I wasn’t organised enough to be in the right place at the right time, but that gives me the perfect excuse to go back another time.






The curves of Yuanyang


I’m not a natural landscape photographer.  I don’t have the patience, or the penchant for early mornings.  Or a tripod.  But Yuanyang, near the Vietnamese border in the far south of China, has some wonderful landscapes which it would be rude not to take pictures of.  I even got up at dawn to take the one above. 





Even when I’m trying to take landscape pictures, I can’t resist including people.


October all over again


This blog has been a little quiet lately, mostly because I’ve been back home in England (for a little longer than planned) where it’s been too cold, grey and wet to take any photographs.  Anyone eager to see pictures of the Sussex countryside in winter will, I’m afraid, have to look elsewhere.

I have, though, dug out some more pictures from my October trip to north-west Vietnam, which I’m posting here.

In other news, I will soon be unleashing my first photobook on an unsuspecting world.  It’s a collection of portrait pictures taken in Vietnam over the last year and a bit, titled – unless someone can come up with something better – Portraits of Vietnam.  Watch this space for further details, and seriously, please let me know in the comments section below if you have a good idea for a title.



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Over and under the bridge

On Long Bien bridge, you see urban Vietnam: motorbikes, tired colonial architecture,  views of narrow houses and tower blocks fading into the smog.  Under the bridge, the island, where you find a slither of rural Vietnam: fishing villages, farmland, brave Red River swimmers.

When I lived in Hanoi, it was one of my favourite areas to go and take photographs in.  These pictures are from a brief visit in October, when I stopped over in Hanoi for a few days on my way further north.

Around Sapa

My trip to Sapa seems like a long time ago now, though I’ve only been back for two and a half weeks.  The cool temperatures, clean air and mist were a world away from Saigon’s humidity and smog.  When the sun came out for the last few days, I was even a bit disappointed.  These pictures were all taken in the countryside and villages around the town over the course of a few long-ish walks.