Ready to know more about San Diego?


Photo Essay: Meals From the Motherland

Photographer James Tran captures the cuisine and culture of Vietnam on his first trip to the country
Photo Credit: James Tran
Beef Noodle Soup Vietnam James Tran

“The last dish I had in Saigon before leaving Vietnam. I really remember it. It’s the beef noodle soup they’re known for in Hue. This was fitting to have as a last meal because my family is from Hue. It was a perfect scene in the restaurant, too—the whole family was out. Kids were bussing tables, dad was chopping vegetables, mom and grandma were stirring soup.”

Photo Credit: James Tran

James Tran is a photographer we know well here at San Diego Magazine. Readers have regularly seen his work featured in our food reviews, because, simply put, he’s one of the best in the region. Born in Virginia and raised in LA, James has been exploring the SD food scene for more than 15 years.

“I studied politics and history at UCSD but ended up getting into the food business, cooking for 10 years,” he says. “I left that to become a food photographer.”

James’ parents came to the US from Vietnam in 1985. His father was high-ranking in the Vietnamese Navy and spent nearly 10 years in a reeducation camp after the Vietnam War.

“There’s a lot,” James says. “My family, like most Vietnamese- American families, [has] an intense backstory. I grew up with Vietnamese food and culture. But Vietnam is a home that I don’t know. My parents never considered the US fully home, and Vietnam isn’t home, either.” Still, he felt called to go.

Now 35, James recently traveled to Vietnam for the first time. Weeks later, he went back again.

“The food here in the US is mostly southern Vietnamese, so going to Vietnam, I got to see the origins of all the things I grew up with,” he says. “But then going to the north meant I got to see this whole other half of the country.”

In total, he spent a month eating and drinking his way through the country, camera in hand.

James came back with thousands of pictures. Here are some of our favorites—the kinds of shots that induce hunger and impulsive plane ticket purchases—with commentary from James.

Đà Lạt Market Vietnam James Tran

“This is pretty close to the main market in Đà Lạt. Đà Lạt is at the same elevation as Denver, so almost all the coffee is grown here. You find European vegetables like cabbages, potatoes, and hydroponic white strawberries. Bougie stuff you see in California.”

Photo Credit: James Tran

Vietnamese Street Food James Tran

“Fresh rice paper salad, with fancy presentation. Refined. This is a variation of a street food dish from a fancy restaurant in Saigon.”

Photo Credit: James Tran

Hanoi Market Vietnam James Tran

“This is a market right in the middle of the old quarter in Hanoi. It’s a big market, at least three streets worth, filled to the brim with produce and products.”

Photo Credit: James Tran

Vietnamese Seafood Crab James Tran

“Phú Quoc Island is almost closer to Cambodia. Their seafood is the freshest I’ve ever seen in my life. I had cuttlefish that was still changing color in the market. That’s the Phú Quoc way of life. Caught that day—caught that hour, really. It’s insanely fresh.”

Photo Credit: James Tran

“It was like a real return to the motherland,” he says.

Dragon Fruit Vetnam James Tran

 Dragon fruit in the main market of Đà Lạt

Photo Credit: James Tran

Madam Kew Restaurant Vietnam

“At Madame Kew, which is the 2nd floor of a restaurant with a DJ. I walked in and was like, ‘Oh, this is the Kettner Exchange of Saigon.’ Saigon is a lot like New York—it’s always had a very strong Chinese influence, so this building is kind of a modern homage to those people.”

Photo Credit: James Tran

Banh Mi Vietnamese Food James tRAN

“Saigon didn’t invent the bánh mì, technically, but the Saigon bánh mì scene is incredible. This is just one of many that I tried.” 

Photo Credit: James Tran

By Mateo Hoke

Mateo Hoke is San Diego Magazine’s executive editor. His books include Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary, and Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation.

Share this post

Contact Us

1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA