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Capturing the Real Saigon

The rooster’s iridescent red feathers caught the morning sunlight, momentarily making them appear to be on fire as his owner held it up for a photo.

Shirtless and swaggering in front of his apartment in a colorful District 5 tenement building, the man seemed as pleased to show off his prized fowl as he was to have his photo taken. The shot which captured Saigon’s vibrant chaos and friendly citizens was taken while Saigoneer tagged along on one of Quinn Ryan Mattingly’s photo tours, a unique way to explore the city and practice one’s hobby.

Photo by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

Tendrils of smoke slowly filled the air as an elderly woman walked around the temple, gently placing them at alters. After taking a few shots of the serene scene, Yogesh, one of the guests on the tour, and Quinn moved into the hushed shadows to chat. The quiet District 1 temple is often the first stop so as to ease people into the morning and allow Quinn to get to know his guests and their photography backgrounds a bit more. Sometimes they’re beginners who are just learning their camera’s basic functions while other times they are experienced globe trotters looking for some insider tips as to where in the dizzying metropolis’ best shots might be lurking

Quinn is one of Vietnam’s premier photographers with his work appearing in prestigious publications including The New York Times, Washington Post and World Health Organization. More impressive than his technical ability, however, is his familiarity with the country and charming affability when working alongside people. After living in Saigon for more than 11 years he’s discovered secret spots and locations while developing meaningful relationships with many of the locals in the neighborhoods.

“They’re here every time,” Quinn says while approaching a group of elderly Vietnamese who smile when they see us and momentarily put down their cups of coffee to say hello. Quinn exchanges a few words with them in Vietnamese, catching up on the neighborhood gossip while Yogesh snaps candid photos. Making people comfortable so they can act naturally goes a long way in capturing authentic portraits of daily life and Quinn has become a familiar face in the areas he likes to bring guests.

The same rapport Quinn has established with locals extends to the people who sign up for his tours making for a relaxed atmosphere. And because he has lived here so long, during the short trips between the locations in the air-conditioned car, he can provide interesting anecdotes and information about life in Vietnam.

Each half-day tour involves several stops that reveal Saigon’s varied scenes and aesthetics. In addition to the tenement building and temple, we visited a District 4 wet market where behind baskets teaming with vibrant fruits, vegetables and meat, vendors sat bartering with the flurry of people shopping for dinner ingredients; a tangled warren of hems where living rooms double as shops selling everything from dried mushrooms to coat hangers; and possibly the smallest alleyway in the city. Throughout the morning, it felt as though Saigon was showing us it’s best sides knowing we had cameras in hand: men raucously watched chess matches, myna birds warbled in cages on balconies, and monks solemnly uttered mantras while a few meters away motorbikes overloaded with fresh coconuts raced past.

Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

While Quinn likes to frequent these familiar spots, he is always open to tailor the tours to specific requests such as when a recent group expressed interest in the city’s French-influenced architecture. Moreover, he’s aware of some seasonal treasures, such as a group that gathers before a festival every year to craft and paint lion dance costumes.

Being so acquainted with Saigon has perks beyond just knowing where and what to shoot. Quinn has found some great stands and stalls for authentic Vietnamese snacks including fried bananas, freshly squeezed fruit juice and coffee. A quick hydration break allows Quinn some time to look over guests’ photos, offering advice and praise as well as sharing his own

For those looking to capture Vietnam’s more serene landscape, Quinn also co-leads 3-day photo excursions to Hoi An so people can see such iconic scenes as farmers planting rice at sunset, brightly colored lanterns casting soft light onto the city’s famous yellow walls and fishing nets rising into the air and falling atop a lagoon’s placid waters like an exhale landing on a window pane. Occasionally he even leaves the country such as an upcoming tour he is leading in Myanmar.

Photo by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes here understands Saigon’s visual charisma. But recognizing this hardly guarantees a stellar photo album. Thanks to the in-the-know destinations and his relationships with the citizens inhabiting them, a tour led by Quinn helps people capture the city’s brightest, most interesting angles.

For more information or to book a tour, visit or contact or 0785698144