TBE005 (EN): 'The Soul of Vietnam' through the eyes of an American Expat

“The Soul of Vietnam” is the name of recent published photo-book from American photographer: Lawrence D’attilio. Lawrence is known by international professional photographers as an inspiring artist and helpful teacher. Not to mentioned some of his friends and students are Vietnamese artists those he met throughout his time in Vietnam. By connecting with local people and spending years living in different parts of Vietnam, Lawrence finally publishes his photo-book about his second-home country.

When mentioning Vietnam and American we can’t deny that we start imagining Lawrence’s book would fill with either pictures of a country rising after huge history full of war and destruction or pictures showing a different culture and life-style of typically Asian agricultural country. However, what I discovered from his art-works is what I believe Vietnamese people will miss within 10 years! I saw presence and forgotten beauty of nature and daily life of Vietnamese people. Combining my image of him driving his small motorbike and his explanation on different pictures, I can’t help asking myself: do I know my country as good as him? The only Western footage on his art-works is from the profession of the taken pictures which I can’t say due to my limitation in art.

First arrival and the launch of the book

Receiving an invitation by Vietnamese artists for a project, he came to Vietnam and felt in love with the country. Since then he spent every 3 to 6 months to live in Vietnam. He’d spent 10 years on discovering Vietnam and learning it. On November 20th 2016 he launched his book named ‘The Soul of Vietnam’ by The Gioi Publisher. The books contains 150 photographs about Vietnam from North to South, showing beautiful nature of Vietnam and people’s daily lives.

Mr. D’attilio said the American are very interested in Vietnam at the moment and he strongly believes the book will be sold very well in the U.S..

Photogrpahs from "The Soul of Vietnam" book project

Photogrpahs from “The Soul of Vietnam” book project

He said Vietnamese people should know their country’s beauty lies not only in tourist attractions but in their daily lives, in the nature surround them. After 10 years watching how Vietnam has been growing he expects Vietnam will play an influential role in the future of the world.

and-the-way-i-would-like-vietnamese-people-to-think-about-the-future-they-are-way-more-important-to-the-future-of-the-world-than-perhaps-they-realise-now

The book launch event on the news:

Show notes:

Linh Phuong: Hi Larry, could you please shortly introduce about yourself to TBE podcast?

Larry: My name is Lawrence D’attilio and I’m originally from New York city in United States. And currently live in Los Angeles part of every year. The other parts of the year I live in Hanoi, Vietnam. And I am an artist specialising in photography installation and other types of artwork. And I have been in Hanoi for more than 10 years. And I have found out that I really love Vietnamese people, they are very warm and I love the beauty of the countryside and many other things about Vietnam I think are very special.

Linh Phuong: so you have lived in Vietnam for 10 years and most of the time you spent in Hanoi. For you, how did you choose to go to Vietnam and how did you decide to stay here and devote most of the time of your years staying in Vietnam and discover the country?

Larry: Well, the easy answer about how I came to Vietnam it’s because we were invited to come here by Vietnamese artists. There was a artist program in Hanoi at that time and the people who ran that program asked my wife who is a classical musician on violin and I would come for 3 months and work with Vietnamese artists to do collaborative work.

So that’s what we did, we worked together to create new artworks. That was very successful and when it was time to come back to the U.S we were very sad…(laugh)… and before we left we’d decided we would come back a lot.

It took 6 years to the book launch

Linh Phuong: You just have your book launched last week so could you please tell me that book when did you officially start? and how did you decide to do it?

Larry: it is hard to say exactly, generally speaking I answered that question by saying 7 years before. But the story is that the book originally was not about all of Vietnam, the original idea was to do the book about Hanoi, especially for the Millennium celebration of Hanoi.

However, we decided that that was not going to sell or have as much appeal both in Vietnam as well as in the other countries. Unless, we did it about Vietnam itself. (laugh) And so it started out as a book about what I knew which was from Danang North to the Chinese border, I didn’t know the South. And after we prepared a whole book that way     we looked at it very carefully and we decided that, … I guess I decided that it was still not the correct book for me. And at that point I decided to make it about the whole country and I went and spent a lot of time in the South to learn more about that.

Linh Phuong: So it was since 2010 when you decided not to publish the book of Hanoi yet and decided to discover more the country and spent 6 years more.

Larry: Ya that’s correct. I think it’s important to understand there are two different ways to make a book of this type of photo book. Most of photo books are made by people who have very small amount of time in Vietnam they don’t know the country very well, they don’t know the culture, they don’t really have the ability to understand deeper meaning in the scenes that they see. So they made a book that really more how should we say pretty pictures and interesting photographs but don’t necessarily convey deeper feeling. So the other type of book is done by people who have spent many years here or live here and generally they really know the country pretty well and they know the people and that type of book is perhaps more valuable to the reader.

So I was afraid myself that my book would be not deep enough in meaning 5-6 years ago. And it took me 6 more years of making photographs to become confident that the book would really reflect something important about Vietnam.

“…those have no words those must be seen and understood and felt by the audience…”

Linh Phuong: I can see because when I checked pictures in your book, it really different than those I saw before. People who publish the book about Vietnam normally they focus on the nice landscape to show the nature really nice and agriculture, or they just focus on somethings so different to their culture. For example motorbike how people carry things on the motorbike or how they carry street food but your book is more in detail it’s something really small and really deep root like you had to explore any corner of every single place that you passed by. That’s why I can feel your spirit and your love with the book and the country.

So could you please tell me with after the time of 10 years approximately focussing on the book and discover the country and you named your book as ‘The soul of Vietnam’, so could you please tell me how could you define for you the soul of Vietnam?

Larry: It is important for people to understand that photography is a very big art form today. Even if you don’t think about commercial use of photography just the art use of photography.

Essentially, we have 6 billion people in the world using cell or mobifone camera and they’re uploading more than 1 billion photos per day to facebook. In that environment to have photographs that means something deeper and are more valuable takes a very special effort.

And because I have been teaching photography since 1970 that means that I’ve been teaching for 46 years now, and I have many many many students many of them are very successful today. But what the basic lesson for them is to understand between the type of photograph you are referring to is that we would refer to that photograph as an illustration of an event, a place, or perhaps a time or perhaps a story. Any photographs that illustrate that type of thing is probably not going to work as fine art. To be fine art the photograph cannot make a story. But it has meaning in it, it has feeling in it, but those have no words those must be seen and understood and felt by the audience, by the people who look at the photographs. So it means in my case that I had to wait until I felt that my photographs were looking deep enough and more personal enough, I had another words I had my own spiritual emotional connection to those situations before the photographs really became rich and full of life.

Linh Phuong: But the soul of Vietnam how do you define it?

Larry: I think that is the definition. If you’re looking for the soul of anything, your own soul somebody else soul, your country soul, you have to feel it, I mean you have to learn it, you have to understand it, you must be curious about it, you must live with it.

Linh Phuong: So each one has a different definition, different feeling with it you think. You can not say in general you think it is like this, it has a hidden charm or something, each one has different definition.

Larry: that would be crap for anybody to say that they can objectively say what soul is. I think it is not a good idea. I think soul is in the idea of the individual person. So in my book this is only my idea I don’t claim that my ideas are correct for anybody else it is simply my idea and that’s what an artist does, a good artist expresses their own idea about what they feel.

He is helping to keep the history

Linh Phuong: That’s nice. And you have lived here for ten years so would you please tell me how did Vietnam change in your eyes for the past 10 years and how do you expect it will grow

Larry: In the 10 years of course, especially the big cities, Da Nang, especially Hanoi, Sai Gon – Ho Chi Minh city have changed a lot. They become busier, there are more people, they are more Western in many ways and of course there are many Tower cranes building, a great many tall buildings all at the same time.

For the future, I think there’s more things that I can say. One is that probably isn’t possible to avoid Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City especially beginning to look like Tokyo or even Shanghai, maybe not quite so fancy and expensive but certainly very similar to that.

And Many of the beautiful things that I like to photograph such as Boutique shop, Old Quarter, Old Street, walls that have many many years and change a great deal, those types of things will be very hard to find in the future maybe even in 10 years.

But the really important thing for me, history is history and I am maintaining some history in my book right? So the really important thing for me is not to preserve, to encourage Vietnam to preserve and try to be like the past. I want to encourage Vietnam to think of the future. And the way I would like Vietnamese people to think about the future: they are way more important to the future of the world than perhaps they realise now.

They are strong and they have great heart and great warmth and they have great love and they do that very well.

And that love and that heart had kept them growing in spite of invasion by foreign countries, in spite of terrible bombing, in spite of, in spite of having their own wars in the past and have even start Asian. They have survived and the reason is that they have a great deal of love. And the time is need for some big cooperation they do that very well with each other. So I would like Vietnam to maybe expect that they would become one of the most influential country in the world within 10 to 20 years.

“…the beauty of Vietnam is not just a Ha Long bay and just not with ethnic people in Sapa”

Linh Phuong: I hope, thank you. Come back to your book, you just released it in this month so what is your next plan of the book, you will bring it to the U.S., do you plan to bring it to other Marketplace beside Vietnam and the U.S.

Larry: The book is definitely designed for the U.S. as well as for Vietnam. In the U.S., really any citizen in the U.S. can be interested in this book and Vietnam, in Vietnam is it more likely the foreigners will buy this book.

But to answer your question 500, more than 500 of these books have already come to the U.S. And we will be, we have not announced it yet but we will be doing that in the next few months we expect them to sell very well. We know that ‘the soul of Vietnam’ book is selling extremely well in Vietnam in all book stores that it’s seen, again primarily to foreigner. That leads the question, ok, how come Vietnam people won’t buy the book very well.

The answer is that they have yet to learn that the beauty of Vietnam is not just a Ha Long bay and just not with ethnic people in Sapa. The beauty is in every day and each other in their home in what is in the street, and what is in their Village and what is in nature near to them, about the birds and the leaf on the tree.

And as they learn that in time, they will probably learn to love this book and they would probably buy it a lot in the future.

Linh Phuong: I think before I come back to Germany I would bring one with me to show the community there.

Larry: Great. You would ask why not distribute the book also in South American and in Europe. We would like to, in the future we will do that. But right now the cost to ship that book from Vietnam from the US to Europe cost more than the book itself and it is not fair to ask customer to pay so much money. So we have to wait until we have distribution in Europe, then we send more than 500 books at one time then the cost is low.

Linh Phuong: thank you a lot for your information and for the short interview today. And

I wish you more success on your book and hope to see you in the coming time in Hanoi.

Larry: okay thank you very much I hope you enjoy your stay here too.

Linh Phuong: Thank you

Larry: Thank you Phuong.


  1. Em Zùa

    8 December

    Web đẹp quá Po ơi <3 sáng sủa dễ theo <3 keep going Pooo

    • admin

      21 December

      Cám ơn em đã ghé podcast nha!

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