Single mother achieves stardom after braving hostile society

By Le Han   January 20, 2021 | 05:13 am PT
Having a child out of wedlock in rural Vietnam was inviting ostracizing trouble, but Cuong remained defiant. Her son has more than vindicated her decision.

After cycling from the farm to the house at noon, Duong Thi Cuong, 56, rushed to the living room to greet her guests.

Cuong of the northern province of Thai Nguyen is the main character in videos directed and filmed by her son Dong Van Hung. The videos have gained widespread popularity on YouTube and made the single mother a star.

The channel, "Am Thuc Me Lam" (Mother’s Cuisine) has garnered more than 834,000 subscribers and the mother and son were chosen to attend YouTube Fanfest 2020, which gathered the biggest stars and celebrities on the platform.

Many Vietnamese and foreign viewers have given "Am Thuc Me Lam" a thumbs up for authentically portraying rural life, and showing how a hard-working mother prepares simple dishes.

The online video-sharing platform has introduced the channel to over 70 million followers on Twitter.

Hung directs and films all videos of Am Thuc Me Lam channel. Photo courtesy of Am Thuc Me Lam.

Hung directs and films all videos of the "Am Thuc Me Lam" channel. Photo courtesy of "Am Thuc Me Lam."

Cuong’s current popularity has not erased memories of a difficult, painful past.

25 years ago, when she was was 32 and became pregnant, she faced the wrath of villagers who called her names and even threw rocks at her. Her decision to become a single mom and keep the identity of the man secret was an open invitation to anger, ridicule and worse.

"Knowing I was pregnant without a husband, even Hung's grandmother (her mother) was strongly opposed. And neighbors said many cruel things. But I chose to keep silent, as if I was deaf and could hear nothing," Cuong recalled.

She begged her mother to let her give birth to her child, saying she would do it just once to have someone to rely on as she got older.

"Still, my mother did not agree. But I knew she would never leave me, so I kept the baby. When Hung was born and grew up, of course she loved him a lot."

Cuong said Hung was the one motivation she had to overcome all the cruel words she received.

Living in a poor village, the single mother faced many challenges in bringing up her child. She ate just vegetables during her postpartum period as she had no money to buy meat or other fancy food. In the summer, she stayed up all night, fanning her infant or he would cry.

When Hung was eight months old, she went to a local bank and was lent VND500,000 ($21.69) to buy a fan and install electricity.

"Hung often got sick when he was a child," Cuong said. She also realized that her son was sensitive and bullied by his friends, so she followed him to school sometimes to protect him.

"I manage the work on the farm and those at home. Then I take care of Hung. That’s how my day unfolded, " she said, smiling as she explained she entertained no thoughts of marrying and having someone to share her burden.

A couple of years ago, Hung found a job in the northern province of Bac Ninh Province and Hanoi, so he left home, leaving his mother and grandmother behind. After the grandmother passed, Cuong then lived with her dogs and cats in her small house.

"That period of time was sad. Hung usually called and talked to me, but I always missed him a lot."

Hung then decided that he would return to his hometown and live with his mother.

They planned to farm for their food and for Hung to find a job locally to settle down and get married.

Cuong and her son, Hung. Photo courtesy of Am Thuc Me Lam.

Cuong and her son, Hung. Photo courtesy of "Am Thuc Me Lam."

Turning point

However, something unexpected changed their lives completely. For a lark, Hung filmed his mother cooking and posted the video on YouTube to keep it as a memory. The video won a lot of praise from Vietnamese and international netizens. He convinced his mother to join him on a vlogging journey.

Cuong was not sure. She had never stood in front of a camera before, but agreed for her son’s sake.

"I was tricked. Hung is picky, he usually tells me to do one thing many times so he can film it the way he wants it. Normally I finish a dish or a step quickly, but he keeps telling me to do it slowly. That was frustrating," Cuong said, recounting the early days of her YouTube journey.

She said she would get angry sometimes because Hung filmed things slowly and the food would get overcooked, but he would encourage her again and again.

"I love him, so I keep trying."

But Cuong enjoyed having her son at home to talk to, eat and work with.

"When local children and adults tell me that they see saw me on TV all the time, I am shy," she said.

Hung’s motivation is to spread the image of his hard-working mother making simple dishes like pickles and roasted peanuts. He feels those living far from home can get a taste of their motherland when watching his videos.

The mother and son feel no pressure even after their channel has been allowed to earn money on YouTube.

"My mother and I will keep going on the path we choose. We go slowly, but I believe that the channel will have sustainable success and its own audience," Hung said.

"This channel is where I keep memories of my mother and it is my way of expressing my gratitude to her. She makes me proud because she has lived a pure life and overcome many challenges to bring me up."

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