Don Hong-Oai was born in 1929 in the city of Guangzhou in the Guangdong Province of China. He is often described as a Chinese artist, but not because of where he was born. He left China at the age of seven, after the sudden death of his parents. As the youngest of 24 siblings and half-siblings, Don was sent off to live in a Chinese community in Saigon, Vietnam. Later in his life he would occasionally return to visit China, but he never lived there again.

On his arrival in Saigon, Don was apprenticed to a photography studio run by ethnically Chinese immigrants. There he learned the fundamentals of photography. He also developed an affection for landscape photography, which he practiced on his time off using one of the studio’s cameras. Don remained an apprentice for a decade, after which he worked a series of odd jobs. Although he was desperately poor, he managed to save US$48 to buy his first camera. In 1950, at the age of 21, he began studying at the Vietnam National Art University.