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The Artist Making a Miniature Saigon Out of Lego Blocks

If a bowl of hủ tiếu were the size of a Lego brick, how many hủ tiếu would you have?

Sturdy, colorful and versatile, Lego toys have been an essential wishlist item for children across the world since their invention in 1949. After nearly a century of re-brick-able fun, with countless builders exiting their tender years, these little blocks are still paving the way for people of all ages to imagine and create, even without instruction booklets.

Among these longtime devotees is Huỳnh Vũ Nguyên Khang, a Vietnamese millennial whose Lego models can turn the ordinary into extraordinary by making miniaturized versions of Vietnam’s street scenes, which encapsulate the magic of both the land and the toy.

A graffiti artist and a freelance designer, Khang also goes by the name Khang Lego, a fitting title as he is considered one of the most prolific members of the MOC (My Own Creation) community in Vietnam thanks to his authentic and adorable representations of the country. 

As a brickmaster, Khang focuses on recreating familiar places and objects that people might overlook in their daily lives, such as an heirloom-worthy Honda Cub, a buttermilk-yellow train station under blossoming bougainvilleas, or a modest roadside barbershop run by your neighborhood chú.

Speaking in an interview with Saigoneer, Khang said that he has paid much more heed to Lego than all the other types of toy since he was a child. The possibilities were endless with these interlocking blocks, he argued, because they could become anything that a young heart desires — a house, a robot, a spaceship.

At one point, Khang had to cast his interest aside to focus on his studies, but eventually rekindled it in 2018 with a transformed vision cultivated from years of street painting: “Graffiti gave me a better understanding and control of the composition, the dimensions and the color profiles of Lego artworks.”

To assemble a complete model, he first needs to sketch out his ideas, find the most appropriate way to put things together, and then collect the building blocks, which according to Khang could be the biggest obstacle: "If you manage to find the perfect piece for an important detail, you are already 50% successful."

Khang pointed out that of all the designs that have materialized under his hands, the most elusive has to be the iconic Honda Cub: "I had to scour the market for basic parts like the rear chain, the saddle, the kickstand and the center stand, and tried different ways to combine them." Following the blueprint of the actual Japanese motorbike, he spent 14 days creating this miniature vehicle.

When he first entered the world of MOC, Khang only focused on making miniscale and microscale designs because they require relatively few materials. Rising to the challenge later on, he began experimenting with larger and truer-to-life structures. But scaling up comes with its own set of headaches.

"I didn’t have a lot of bricks at first so whenever I finished something my collection would run out. I kept having to break apart whatever I just made if I wanted to make another one," Khang recalls. It was under this circumstance that he learned photography so that he could capture “the fleeting beauty" of his creations. Once Khang’s stash got upgraded, he no longer had to dismantle his works; but his early experience afforded him the expertise to turn his home studio into a semi-professional set for photoshoots.

Having curated different photos of his collection, he began to share them on social media, where they gained attention from Lego enthusiasts across the globe. One of the most notable sets, 'Mâm cơm ngày Tết' (a Tết feast), even caught the eye of the Danish brand itself.

According to Khang, this is the installment that he is most proud of. It all goes back to when the brickmaster "realized that this particular piece looked a lot like an egg with a deep orange yolk in the middle," which got him thinking about the Tết quintessential thịt kho hột vịt. Inspired, Khang decided to “cook up” a full house of bánh chưng, bánh tét, pickled palanquin and yellow apricot to celebrate the spirit of Tết.

Another recent success is 'Familiar #11 - Hủ tiếu mì gõ' (Familiar #11 - Street hủ tiếu and noodles), which was spotlighted by the official Lego fanpage, providing an intimate and quirky glimpse into the street food culture in Vietnam

"Familiar #11 is my most satisfying work to date. It didn't take too long to complete, but the result, both in terms of expression and emotion, hit all the sweet spots," Khang proudly says. An interesting tidbit is that the plastic bucket in the model belongs to a Lego set that has been long discontinued and was a real gem to collect.

For a change of pace, Khang is also experimenting with new subjects from popular culture, such as the Lego-ized scene from the hit anime Attack on Titan where the Colossal Titan breaks the wall of Maria. The projects have "given [him] a very cool and unique building experience," he says.

But the crux of the game still lies in the fun of assembling the pieces. Khang comments: "The joy of Lego is about being immersed in the moments and racking your brain to figure everything out. It's the clicking sound the bricks make when you're reaching into the box, or the sense of fulfillment when it's all put together and you can show it to people...These moments, they make me forget about the daily grind, and I'm happy for that."

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