Old Lady in Hoi An Markets. Hoi An old town, Hanoi, Vietnam. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Monday Memories: A Moment at Hoi An Market

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We’ve been working on food stories here in Hoi An, Vietnam, which translates to eating oodles of noodles. We’ve averaged one bowl of the local favourite, cao lầu, per day. Having worked our way through the street stalls, backstreet eateries and restaurants sampling the dish, we headed to Hoi An Market to try the renditions there.

While locals don’t recommend the market stalls, they’re popular with tourists because the prices are displayed, there are fans, and they don’t have to sit on miniscule stools, so we thought we should give them a shot and ended up trying three stalls.

One stall I liked the look of is operated by a friendly woman who has the cleanest and tidiest stall in the market. Her cao lầu is pretty good, so one day, needing a quick lunch, we returned.

Surprisingly, she remembered us, to the point of recalling I was not a fan of fish leaf and removing the herb from my mix of fragrant greens. She also gave us extra pork – one of the welcome little perks of settling into a place for a while.

As Lara and I devoured our noodles I looked up from my bowl to see an old woman hovering behind the French tourists eating beside us. As they paid for their noodles, the woman held out a wrinkled hand in the hope they’d offer her a little change. They ignored her and walked off.

While I continued working my way through my noodles, I watched the old lady shuffle across to the nearby market entrance. She was standing in the shade, yet the bright midday light bounced around her, creating an almost halo-like effect, and making her look quite angelic.

I wondered why she was begging for money. Did she have to beg or did she choose to? She was extremely frail and was certainly past her working years, even for Vietnam where people in their eighties still cycle to work. But how old was she? Where was her family? What was her story?

After we scooped the last spoonful of rich broth from the bottom of our bowls and Lara paid for our noodles, I saw the old lady’s hand reach between us, gesturing for some change.

We looked to the stallholder as if to ask: “Should we give her some money? Was this little old lady in legitimate need?” She nodded sympathetically so we gave the old lady our 20,000 Vietnamese dong change (around US$1) and she took it with thanks and an appreciative smile and wearily went and sat on the bench opposite.

There was just enough light spilling in from outside to create a lovely lighting ratio on her face so I asked, gesturing with the camera, if I could make her portrait.

I had a 50mm lens on the camera but instead of fumbling around for my go-to 85mm/1.4 portrait lens, I decided to just make her portrait as a mid-shot before she became impatient, bored or shy*.

I shot quickly, and here they are, the only three shots I took.

While assessing, labelling and rating my crazy number of Hoi An images (now nudging the 15,000 mark) I’ve found myself scrolling back again and again to look at the photos of her.

Lara thinks she looks sad and a little weary with life and would rather be at home sipping tea than having to be out begging for money at Hoi An market.

I’m not so sure. I want to be optimistic. In a perverse way, I want to think that she’s healthy and doesn’t have to beg, that perhaps she’s trading on her age to get a free lunch from generous (gullible?) tourists.

I think the gentle smile evident in the first image gives me some hope, that maybe she is in some way, content. Her smile is certainly something that draws me into the image. It makes me want to know her story. What do you think?

Details: Nikon D700, 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor @ F2.5 @ 1/160th second @ ISO1250.

  • This is why it’s important that when you’re presented with these opportunities you know your equipment so well you can quickly dial in settings to get a result.

Ask yourself: what’s the slowest shutter speed I can use with this lens to get a sharp picture without lens/motion blur? How far can I push the ISO of this camera and still get a usable shot? Should I underexpose it a little to stop the highlights from blowing and still be able to recover the shadows? What f-stop should I use to throw the background out of focus enough to make the subject ‘pop’ from the background but still have a sense of place?

You need to be able to do this in a second or two after assessing the light so you can compose a shot quickly before losing the interest and confidence of your subject.

If you’re interested in taking portraits of people on the road, please do take a read of these posts on How To Photograph People When Travelling and Taking Portraits – Tips for Travellers.

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Terence Carter is an editorial food and travel photographer and infrequent travel writer with a love of photographing people, places and plates of food. After living in the Middle East for a dozen years, he settled in South-East Asia a dozen years ago with his wife, travel and food writer and sometime magazine editor Lara Dunston.

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