From Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg, the Internet is home to stories of college dropout successes. But who would leave a blossoming career to return to school? Photographer, designer, and blogger Nguyen Son Tung did. These days, Nguyen Son Tung is known as the travel blogger behind lạc.lost, a well-loved photolog which brings images of an idyllic rural Japan to a Vietnamese audience.
Having designed for brands across Vietnam and Australia, Nguyen Son Tung moved to Japan in 2015 to enroll in Niigata College of Art and Design as an illustration major. He soon discovered that, with a camera in hand, the streets were his muse. His blog quickly drew attention for its mellow recollections and minimalist aesthetics. Behind his lens, 26-year-old Nguyen Son Tung exudes a strange calm—and his favorite pastime is forgetting about time. He is a practitioner of slow travel, usually considered an offshoot of the slow food movement.
Vietcetera met with Nguyen Son Tung, a Ho Chi Minh City native to discuss his experiences in Japan, slow travel, and the inspiration behind his art.
A conversation with street photographer Nguyen Son Tung
How did you first enter the realm of photography?
As a designer, I’ve always used photographs in my work but was frustrated by how complicated and costly copyright issues can become. I preferred spending resources on ideation and crafting. To save myself the trouble of dealing with copyright issues I decided to build my own photo stock. It seemed like a no-brainer.
Seven years later, here I am. I wouldn’t call myself a professional photographer, as I’m not rigorously researching techniques or even making a living out of the job. I’m just a creative who really enjoys photography.
What first brought you to Japan?
When I was in Vietnam, I frequently received compliments on how western my designs were. And yet as a young Vietnamese, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy about the absence of Vietnam’s 4000-year rich cultural legacy in my work.
When I looked at Japan I saw an art and design scene that had evolved in a way that balanced heritage and innovation—I wanted my own work to do the same. For example, foreign-inspired products entering the Japanese market underwent state-of-the-art localization, so that they brought with them not only an international influence but also the quirks of Japan’s unique culture. Tokyo has been called the city where ancient and modern meet. So I went to Japan, hoping to soak it all in.
With this in mind, I didn’t set out to create Japanese designs, but to learn the secrets behind Japan’s success. The last step was to bring this kind of aesthetic to Vietnam, but in my own way.
How do you find the subjects of your photos?
I never go looking for subjects. Instead, I take my camera out for a walk, pause at a beautiful spot, close my eyes and frame a photo in my head. This kind of spontaneity often means that the potential shot does not rely on a single movement or subject to make it complete—like a bicycle, a train, or person. I just stand by and wait for the world to pass in front of my lens. My photos are not staged, and one shot can take many hours.
How would you describe slow travel, and how does this manifest in your own life?
I’d like to think that slow travel is as much a mindset as it is an activity. When you seek, beyond hedonism, and truly connect with a destination, you’re traveling slow. You’re out for a fully immersive experience. In my case, I’m always in the pursuit of cultural grace, understanding, and brotherhood—these cannot be rushed.
I love savoring a conversation with a complete stranger. I go out of my way to join kids for a soccer match or listen to an old man’s tale. When I share such a connection with the subject of a static image, they come alive in my eyes and in my viewers’ as well.
It helps that I’m a walking addict, often covering 20 to 30 kilometers in a day. Feet may be slower than cars or trains, but they are an ideal means of transportation for people who do street photography. Walking allows you to be mindful of your surroundings. You can keep your hands busy on the camera while still moving and stopping wherever you want. I purposely take unexpected turns and get lost so I can discover the unknown parts of a city.
Still, my friends and family find it odd for a person to walk as much as I do. Maybe that’s why I always travel alone.
How has the slow travel movement inspired you to create?
I’ve always taken an analog approach when searching for new ideas. A computer screen can be dead end for me sometimes. It can also be a useful tool. I need to be out there wandering, talking to strangers, and exploring. Every slow trip is a journey to the uncharted.
I believe the most valuable ideas emerge from experience, so I’m always on the lookout for more of it. Most importantly, to survive in the creative industry, you need to find a reliable way to refresh yourself and recover from the occasional burnout. For me, slow travel is the way to recovery. It’s not just a hobby, it’s a professional need.
Using three words, how would you summarize your work?
Instants. Feelings. Minimalism.
My photos are all about that. Blogging is self-serving, so I need to have an emotional connection to what or who I’m photographing to produce a meaningful piece of art. Minimalism is another feature you can find in all my works, be it photography or graphic design. I pay close attention to detail and ruthlessly remove excess.
You’ve run several Vietnam-themed art projects, such as the popular Lost In Tokyo (Lost), Dep To Ong Phieu Luu Ky—featuring Vietnam’s unofficial national footwear—and the illustration set Doi Bung, Sai Gon Oi! Tell us about your favorite.
I started all the projects you listed with the same zest, but I’m best known for “Lost”. My first year in Tokyo could be packaged into that one word. Struggling to adapt to the new environment, I found myself in a constant longing for the nostalgic and familiar. It happened to come to me in the form of a contemporary Vietnamese villager casually dressed in a tank and shorts. I wanted to place this piece of imagery into the bustle of Japan’s capital city.
So I dug through my closet for the right clothes and had my friend send a pith helmet from Vietnam. We found the suitcase at a bizarre antique thrift shop in a Japanese flea market. The seller offered us an extortionate price, but my friend brought it down three-fold with his Vietnamese haggling skills. The rest is history.
“Lost” concluded with a bang, but my longing for home never did. Inside my head remained the remnants of my upbringing in Vietnam. I missed my grandma’s fried rice, the nearby alley’s hu tiu, and my worn-out dep to ong slides. These memories transformed into comforting sources of inspiration which accompanied me on my aimless wandering. I experimented with placing these symbols against unusual backdrops. Today, I’m just glad people found the juxtaposition interesting.
What advice would you give to an aspiring street photographer?
Fill your eyes with beautiful crafts. Make your Instagram feed a dedicated educational space, and be selective about who you follow. I often pick out photographers who I aspire to be like, then look at their works daily, familiarizing myself with their moods, layouts, and color grading strategies.
In keeping close watch over talented artists, I’m not trying to replicate any particular shots but the thinking behind them. Little by little, visual patterns and standards from their works will appear in your toolkit. Your eyes will grow more reflexive in identifying and capturing precious, flashing moments. Learning from and combining the skill sets of others has been an effective way of defining my own style.
Most importantly, allow yourself to connect emotionally with your photography. Feel your breath and live in the moment. Embrace the transient beauty in front of you. Wouldn’t it be such a shame if you get so caught up in watching others’ works that you missed out on your own chance?
Who should we speak with next?
Three people stand out in my mind.
Firstly, Pham Manh Hiep, a filmmaker-turned-entrepreneur. After returning to Vietnam from his studies abroad, Hiep had his short film produced by Charlie Nguyen. It ended up as a finalist in the category of Best Script at 7FilmFest for his work Ly Cuối. Now he leads his own advertising agency called the Manual Focus Company.
Another inspiring artist is Doan Phuong Anh, the travel blogger behind @imvietnam who I like to call the Vietnamese version of Sweden’s Jonna Jinton. She volunteered extensively before settling down in Dalat where she runs a cafe and an organic farm which employs the hearing-impaired.
Finally, aNcari Room is a lovely Japanese blog that is produced right here in Vietnam. You can tell from her vlogs that, fortunately, her Vietnamese is much better than my Japanese!