Trung Nguyễn, Vietnamese Illustrator – Maker Profile
Our first few days in Ho Chi Minh City, we were scoutin’ out a maker for an upcoming RAD AND HUNGRY project. When we saw Trung’s sketches, we immediately knew we wanted to work with him. His illustrations manage to be both delicate and have heft – the lines may be fine, but the characters he illustrates be strong, little individuals brought to life. And, super important for us, his art has a strong sense of place. The colors, the characters, the scenery – we’d only been in Việt Nam for a few days, but it all clearly screamed Saigon. Which makes sense, since Trung is born-and-raised Saigonese.
We met up for coffee with him and his friend Justin. We chatted about his work, his city and a rad project he’s collabin’ on. Afterwards? Scootin’ around Ho Chi Minh City complete with grubbin’ stops!
RAH – You originally studied architecture, and then changed to study illustration in your last year. What made you switch it up?
Actually I feel I’m the kind of a person who can’t have the right decision the first time (laugh).
I didn’t find myself dedicated to architecture all that much. Took me one year to decide I should stop wasting my time and rethink about what suits me better. It was a tough time.
Later I applied to RMIT University where I spent four years training to be a graphic designer. It is funny that illustration was just one small, extra course that I took in my very last semester at school, yet it inspired me greatly. It’s hard to explain but the moment I finished my first artwork, I knew I’d stick to this career path. Illustration lets me immerse in my imagination and allows me to tell stories in my own perspectives. I really feel that drawing best reflects myself as a visual person.
RAH – Obviously you still have an interest in architecture – when we were scootin’ around HCMC, you pointed out a ton of great buildings to us! Do you have a favorite?
Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts is a great place to visit. It has very nice, typical French architecture style found in Vietnam from the period of late 19th to early 20th century. And it has interesting Vietnam visual art displayed inside.
You’ll also be amazed at how urban residents show their bold creativity and crazy ideas with cafes, and it’s hard for me to pick one. Up Café fills its space with upside down furniture. Nhỏ Café, Cộng Café and Út Lành Café revive the vintage atmosphere of Ancient Saigon with both architecture and interior.
RAH – We’ve seen on Instagram that you’re working on a children’s book! What inspired the story? Are you involved in both writing the story and illustrating it?
This is a project by me and my friend. We are a team of two that share the same love of making children’s illustrated stories. It has been a great experience so far. Together we brainstorm ideas, refine storyline and arrange words. I’m in charge of doing sketches and she colours them on her computer.
This is an Asian-themed story and we do add lots of Vietnam materials in it, yet we still want our message to be approachable by all kids. We try to think about what common problems everyone used to have in their childhood. I think children being too dependent on adults and not trying enough to overcome big or small difficulties is a good topic to start. In my country, Bụt (or Buddha) is a very popular character in folklore, giving miracles to unlucky people who cry for it. But we know miracles rarely happen. We can make things work all by ourselves.
Big-ups to Trung for taking the time to answer our Maker Profile questions! Follow him on Instagram to check out his ongoing work.
1 - First, the basics: pencil or pen, ruled sheets or grid?
Can I choose both? My ideal trio would be pencil for sketching, pen for note taking and A5 ruled sheets.
2 - What’s your favorite Vietnamese food to grub on? Vietnamese drink to sip?
Phở, and I know it’s cliched to say but it’s true love! What is more reasonable than a Vietnamese who loves Phở? (laugh) I like Phở in the South better. It’s tastier, more vegetables and richer flavors. It almost becomes a routine that I can’t do without Phở for more than a month.
3 - Describe the Saigonese art scene in 3 words.
Creative, diverse, colourful.
4 - What’s the one thing everyone should experience in Ho Chi Minh City?
Going out in the afternoon to watch countless bikes struggling in rush hours.
5 - You have a jet fueled up and ready for your own personal World Tour. Where you headed?
Cool! I’d love to go to Japan first. I’m in love with its peaceful countryside drawn in Studio Ghibli’s animation films (and sushi and video games and manga and anime, of course). Then I’d head for Norway for its splendid scenery. America, Australia and Canada would also be in the list (do we have enough fuel?).
6 - What inspires your style of illustration?
I think “styles” include both the look and the content. About the look, I’m attracted to color combinations and magical, unreal elements. I sometimes add absurdity in my artwork to give it layers of meanings. For the content, I love childhood-related topics. I always want to live and think like a child. However I can’t ignore problems of the present, so sometimes I draw to show my own thinking about one specific thing.