Photoessay: Motorcycle life, Hanoi

_5R04386 copyMotorcycles are a core part of Vietnamese life – transport, lounge, freedom, place of work, revenue generator – to name just a few functions. It is impossible to go anywhere in Hanoi without having to avoid one, or them avoid you. They are both subject and context and ubiquitous foreground. It amazes me every time that there aren’t more road traffic accidents (but then again, they don’t move that fast) and that anybody can find their bike in the massive ranks after leaving it there for more than a few hours – the ‘backspace’ might well change quite markedly after that time as people depart and arrive.

But that does bring us back to the core function of the bike: to serve the people. It was once postulated that if aliens came from another planet and observed earth, they might well assume cars to be the intelligent life form and us merely parasites – the same is true for motorcycles. We must therefore also not forget whom they are meant to serve…

This series was shot with a Canon 5DSR and Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus or an Olympus E-M5 II and Zeiss 1.4/35 Distagon ZM. _5R04749 copy

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. I love your work. I have lived in India so I’m used to the scenes of people on motorcycles, sometimes there is only one person, sometimes six people on them. Yes, indeed, motorcycles are essential for some people.

  2. Curious, Ming … did you have all cameras at your fingertips in each of those situations, or did you carry different kit in each circumstance? I ask because I wonder what criteria you used in each of those situations to choose the camera/lens combination you did.

    • I had most of them with me most of the time…most of the choices were by concept/idea within the constraints of focal length (was making sensible/versatile lens-body pairings; swapping lenses in a dusty environment is never a good idea).

  3. Jorge Balarin says:

    Very nice photo essay. Thank you !

  4. Great photos! You literally captured vibes and hypes of our chaotic daily life (with motorcycles) ❤👍👌💯

  5. These are great, catches the essence of the scooterworld that is Vietnam, the cinemtic feel only adds to the story!
    Greetz, Ron

  6. John Brady says:

    Really loving these examples of your cinematic style. It’s quite timely as I’m in the middle of Episode 4 of “Making Outstanding Images”. I’m looking forward to trying a more deliberate approach to my shooting style.

  7. Michiel953 says:

    I’ve been in Asia only twice. Beijing, November 1998, a conference, FM2n, 35/2.0, Fuji 200 colour negative. I remember the bicycles, the numbers, I remember the fog and the yellow haze.Thailand, tourist city, January 2006, Contax Tvs? I remember the mopeds, the scooters, and the light motorcycles. And the chaos. And the heat. I twice rented a sidewalk motorcycle, powerful Honda’s with a scratch and a dent or two, and raced my way through the traffic and the countryside.

    These images bring back a lot pf that, but in a different way.

  8. Looks like the two recent gear articles average more than ten times as many comments as those devoted to photo content. Is that about the norm? Does that disparity reflect a similar multiple for readership? Or are quantity of comments and readership not directly related?

  9. Amazing pictures that show how the bikes intertwindle with Vietnamese life.
    Would it have been possible to shoot these images with the 645z + FA90 IS as well?
    (I’m contemplating my options and not sure in which direction to move. IS, tilt screen and sensor with high dynamic range make the 645z very attractive for night shots. Weight is similar to 5DSr+Otus 85, AF might be a plus if accurate. I wonder about size and handling….

    • Easier, I think. Manual focusing on the 5DSR is either laggy (LV) or inaccurate (OVF). But less depth of field control, and if you’re working with wide aspect ratios, noticeably less resolution for printing too because of the 3:2 vs 4:3 aspect sensor.

  10. I love your cinematic style ( Can you recommend any books that help define this style from a technical (rather than artistic) perspective? Thanks!

    • Thanks. I think the two are related: you have to define the artistic intent first, then only figure out how to execute it technically – because the ‘how to’ will change according to the situation and intent. I haven’t seen any books that do this simply because it’s difficult to demonstrate in print – it’s also why I haven’t been able to write a useful article that decisively demonstrates the techniques. However, we did manage to make it work as a video so we could demonstrate live with context: Outstanding Images Ep.4 does have a section on field execution of the cinematic style, and Outstanding Images Ep.5 deals with postprocessing.

  11. Arthur Maslo says:

    I think some of those are really beautiful! Love this series overall.

  12. I love the one of the guy eating noodles astride his bike. I’ll have to make some Vietnamese or Thai style rice noodles this weekend, some of my favorite foods. I learned to love them at a young age, running around in Chiang Mai visiting the neighbors. Still comforting food to me 47 years after leaving there.

  13. Any thoughts on why movies get away with far stronger colour grading than stills? For example these screen captures seem overdone when viewed as stills:

    • Projectors – they’re reflective devices and less saturated than LCD screens we usually view images on.

      • Does that mean that the movies we watch at home look wrong? You would think that the projector was calibrated instead of the source, or at least a different version was used for home distribution (and small screen editing).

        • No, there are different versions for different distribution. Don’t forget the whole challenge of different color spaces on different media too…

          • Thought so – and I still think that movies do get away with more extreme grading than stills. It must have something to do with how a moving picture is perceived, perhaps the brain compensating white balance in a similar way as for ambient light in the real world.

          • Though now that I think further, paintings seem to get away with it, too.

  14. Gerner Christensen says:

    Ming, your cinematic style works so well for this topic. I see I missed a great chance to learn more in practice how to freeze the precious moment in cinematic format.
    Next stop is in Venice and I think that’s my chance to get on with it. Where there is a wish and will, there’s a way.

  15. Bicycles are much more cool and definitely more sexy, especially with girls riding them. Vietnam is loosing it`s charm :-).No more slim legs there. Living in Denmark should explain my attitude. If only we had vietnamese weather but alas :-(.
    p.s. You use Olympus along with Canon and Otus? Do they mix well?

    • It does the job – I needed the tilting screen, stabiliser and crop factor. For cinematic work where there’s a lot of OOF elements and more resolution isn’t always better, it actually worked pretty well.

      • Not finding the Sony ibis up to snuff?

        • Honestly, no. Olympus is good for 1/0.25x FL, and definitely at least 1/0.5x; the Sony struggles at 1/0.5 and still gives me odd motion about 15% of the time at 1/1x. Perhaps it has to do with the weight of the sensor carriage.

  16. Nice to see some natural light colour open shots, not a criticism more of a observation I relate your photography mostly to buildings or darkish street scenes. Anyway the colour and light hit me on this post and they are very good.

  17. Ming, did you get up to Halong Bay? Always fancied a trip.

  18. Any *real* motorcycles? 😉

    • Oh give over. Haivng ridden a Kawasaki ER6f in Thailand, I’ll stick to my Honda Click 125 thanks. Big bikes don’t work here, it’s dangerous enough.

    • Almost none, with average monthly incomes being far lower than most westerners would spend on a meal.

  19. Loving the cinematic feel of this set!

  20. Gary Morris says:

    Ha… I did a similar photo essay of scooter life in HCMC when I was working there in 2005…

    Not that my images are on a par with yours; they are not (all were taken with an original Canon Digital Rebel and the now-extinct 28-105 lens… very primitive by todays standards). But I had fun.

  21. I love motorcycles, therefore liked this photo essay even more. You do have the eye to make any subject look good. 🙂
    On a slightly related topic… MotoGP race controversy in Sepang two weeks ago is still fresh. Ignore if you don’t follow motorcycle racing. (although I hear that many in the region are quite passionate). Again, great job.

  22. Those aren’t what people in the US would consider “motorcyles,” more “scooters” and “mopeds.” Just FYI.

  23. thuy pham says:

    great job. you really capture the essence of the vietnamese city.

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