The Many Faces of Vietnam: Trung Del

From waiter and stonemason to cashier, Trung Del has taken a meandering route to achieve his dream of becoming a photographer. Words by Vu Ha Kim Vy


I first met Trung Del on a business trip to Hanoi last September. He was friendly, wore an army shirt and had his long hair tied up into a little bun. Originally from Thai Binh, Trung spent hours teaching me how to use my new Nikon camera while I collected fragmentary stories of his life.


Trung never knew his father; all he knows is that his father left for Germany a long time ago. Since he was 12, he has been dreaming of going to Germany to find him.


“When I was younger I thought that all western people spoke English. So I learnt English as hard as I could in order to get a scholarship to Germany,” he says. “But I would still like to go there because of its free photography courses.”


He pursued his English studies until his junior year of university, when he dropped out due to financial problems. On leaving his studies, he set off for the Vietnamese Highlands in search of a better life.


Life is not Easy


Before officially working in the photography industry, Trung plied his trade in many fields. The list includes being a stonemason in the Highlands, a delivery driver, a café waiter, a cashier for a cosmetic company, clothing salesman and a waiter at the once popular downtown hang-out, Southgate.


“I worked doubles at Southgate Hanoi for two reasons — it wanted to learn hospitality skills and rebuild my English.” He pauses for a while and then laughs. “In fact, it was more about the free staff meals.”


After Southgate closed down, he again went back to his café waiter job at a café-cum-photography-lab called Zone5. This gave him his first step towards a life in photography.


The Passion


The more photographers Trung met at Zone5, the stronger his passion for photography became. Feeling the excitement brought on by the images taken by other people, Trung decided to buy his first camera.


“It was 2012 when I bought my Canon FTb for VND600,000,” he says. “Then I drove to Thai Nguyen to buy an old VND800,000 lens.”


In 2013, Trung began shooting a project on street life and bumped into well-known photographer Justin Mott, a friend of the owner of Southgate. Justin offered him an internship and Trung ended up working for him as an assistant for a year.


Through Southgate Trung also met Thiep Nguyen, a photographer with the American MIA programme. Once again, he worked as an assistant for Thiep. Between Thiep and Justin, Trung got vital, on-the-job experience. Since then he has worked with a number of other photographers including Aaron Joel Santos, Christian Berg, Chris McGrath, Andrew Rowatt, Jose Ferreira, Marcel Lam and Tim Barker.


“Working with professional photographers has inspired me and has made me want to become a true photographer,” he says. “But because of the financial pressures and the fact that I don’t have a stable income, I’ve become a professional photography assistant instead.”


He adds: “In Vietnam, anyone who has a camera is regarded as a photographer. Becoming a photography assistant is more interesting, and it’s certainly more unusual.”




Project 365


On Trung’s 30th birthday he bought himself a Lomography Petzval Art Lens 85mm f2.2 — he’d been saving up for it for almost a year. A reproduction of a piece of photographic equipment designed in 1840 by Joseph Petzval, the lens creates a number of aberrations including field curvature and a high level of vignetting that make it perfect for shooting portraits that come with effects that you can’t create in post-production.


Trung’s project was to shoot one portrait every day for a whole year. Then, for his 31st birthday he would print a photobook — each image would come with the name of the person, their age and their job title. “If I couldn’t shoot any portraits in one day,” says Trung, “I would fail.”


For the first two months, the project went well, but then on day 60, he hit a wall. Working on a job in Saigon with an architecture photographer, his day finished at 11.50 in the evening, not leaving him enough time to find a subject for his portrait. The project was abandoned.


To follow are images from the first 60 days of shooting his portraits. Says Trung, “I’ve promised myself that I will soon find another portrait project to get stuck into.”


Day 2

Born in 1995, Huy works as a security guard on Hoan Kiem Lake. He has been working there for almost two years since he failed the entrance examination to university.


Day 8


Ramlan is a 58-year-old taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur. He moved to the Malaysian capital 15 years ago from a poor village, and has been working as a driver ever since.


Day 11


20-year-old Sebastian Port is a juggler, a Reiki practitioner and a psychedelic artist. He is at Kuala Lumpur Airport waiting for his connecting flight to India.


Day 24


Vuong is 55 years old. She brings flowers from her village 40kms from Hanoi to sell at the biggest flower market in town.


Day 26


A cleaner at Guangzhou International Airport. I couldn’t talk to her but she was pleased to pose for a photo.


Day 33


37-year-old Phuong sells conical hats. After helping him make a sale to a foreign couple, he was happy to post for a portrait.


Day 52


Thai Chau is a friend from Saigon. Born in 1987, he’s now a singer and a tattoo artist. Last year he performed at the Monsoon Music Festival in Hanoi.


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