When he moved to Vietnam in 2007, photographer Justin Mott didn’t really know the language—he’d fallen in love with the region on reporting trips, and decided he was just going to make it work. He was living in Hanoi, wandering the “raw, visual” city, camera in hand. A group of new Vietnamese friends would show up at his home, working through the language barrier to take him along on spur-of-the-moment photography trips.
Phu Quoc: Above
A small boat lies anchored just off the coast of a small fishing village in Phu Quoc, an island in the southwest.
“I missed the sharing part of photography,” Mott says of his time in the competitive American photojournalism world, “and in Vietnam it was about sharing.”
A Rhode Island native who studied journalism and photography in San Francisco, Mott felt instantly welcome in Vietnam. Sixty-year-old Nguyen Kim Thuy, a public-school English teacher with whom Mott worked for years on a story about the generational trauma of Agent Orange, helped him acclimate to life in a new city.
“I’m like the American son she never wanted,” Mott jokes.
Mrs. Thuy, as her students call her, introduced Mott to translator Quynh Anh, called Q, who began working with Mott’s production company. She and Mott married legally in 2017, followed by ceremonies in Vietnam and Rhode Island.
Traveling around Southeast Asia and the Pacific for commercial and documentary projects squeezed Mott’s time for more experimental, creative work. Looking for a meaningful personal project, he thought of honoring his adopted home with a project “that could be used [to showcase] Vietnam in a positive way.”
“I have this gratitude to [Vietnam],” he says. “People have let me into their homes, let me tell their stories.”
Where his earlier work was done solo, this new project—“As Above So Below”—is very much a team effort. A drone pilot, Nguyen Hai Nam, makes aerial images under Mott’s direction; Q, who co-runs their photography company, has also had a hand in the project's development. Though he’s protective of copyright, Mott intends to set up an online gallery to share the photos for free use in promoting Vietnam tourism.
“It’s sort of full circle,” he says. “I came here as an American … now, 10 years later, my wife is Vietnamese, my friends are Vietnamese. We’re doing this project together in this kind of American-Vietnamese bond that I think is neat for people to see.”
Travel tips & tricks
Travel to Vietnam tends to be “very regimented,” Mott says. “Backpackers follow this path, stay on this line; tours go here, then there, then you’re done. You can do more than that in Vietnam.”
For experienced riders, Mott recommends renting a motorcycle to wander on a self-directed adventure outside the city to experience the countryside, which promises beautiful views throughout the nation’s northern, southern, and central regions. [See the palatial Vietnamese hotel inspired by the apocalypse.]
Hiring a translator or local guide is another good strategy: “That’s what a journalist would do, and maybe a tourist wouldn’t think to do it, but it’s not that expensive and you see things way differently.”
And when it comes to Vietnam’s world-renowned cuisine, don’t be intimidated, Mott says, even when the menus are only in Vietnamese (as they are at the best spots). Instead, take a food tour or two to learn what you like, how to piece meals together, how much to order, and how much to pay—then strike out on your own. [Learn more travel tips on our Vietnam guide page.]
- Nat Geo Expeditions