Vietnam was a place I always heard stories about.
I grew up in the United States and didn’t have the opportunity to travel there until I turned 20 last year. It was an overwhelming experience, but I couldn’t get enough of the country.
Returning again this summer allowed me to appreciate the experiences I had thought of nonstop during my everyday life back in New York City.
From the coffee to the ao dais (traditional dresses) to the street-side makeshift motorbike repair shops, I began to understand the Vietnamese propensity for creating amazing things out of simple, raw materials. There were artisans and creators everywhere, using their hands and every available resource to make something beautiful. As an artist, I left Vietnam feeling more inspired than ever.
In the central highland city of Dalat, I visited a traditional hand-embroidery studio. Silk threads were delicately stitched together to create vast murals of tranquil landscapes and imperial portraits that could have easily been mistaken for paintings. The string gradients were more seamless than what I could have achieved by blending oil paints.
I watched as wood carvers chiseled Sarsaparilla Birch (used to make root beer) from whole logs into smooth, intricately detailed hair combs, jewelry boxes, clocks, and cigarette boxes. In the north, Hmong women showed me a new level of multitasking as they carried their children on their backs, weaved together patterned bracelets and hemp strings, and skillfully trekked the lush rice terraces of Sapa.
Even the simplest Vietnamese dishes were packed withflavor that seemed like art. Avocados picked straight from the tree tasted rich and creamy and were incomparable to any I had eaten in the States. Fishermen cast their lines off the coastal city of Nha Trang and worked their haul into multiple dishes accompanied by raw squid, fresh vegetables, herbs, and, of course, fish sauce. Simple street food such as bot chien (fried rice cake) with beaten egg and spring onions proved to be better and more addictive than American potato chips. And of course there was banh mi. The crunchy and thin outer shell of bread perfectly cocooned homemade pâté, cold cut meats, fresh herbs, cucumber, and pickled carrots.
As a photographer in New York City, visiting Vietnam, my ethnic homeland, encouraged me to pay attention and find appreciation for the more ordinary things throughout my daily urban life.
Documenting these moments on film helped me find beauty in the simplicity. Being able to synthesize such significant aspects of my heritage by traveling not only informed the understanding of my identity, but also influenced how I will approach my work as a creator in this increasingly globalized world.