Travel - June 17, 2021 | 02:33 am PT

Man quits job to hunt ethnic minority smiles across northern highlands

Pham Xuan Quy brought along a camera and portable printer on his trans-Vietnam journey, stopping off in the northern highlands to capture ethnic minority life.

After more than a year of coronavirus outbreaks, the 33-year-old native of the southern province of Dong Nai gave up his job as a manager at a movie theater in Bien Hoa Town to explore the beauty of the country instead.

Moc Chau in Son La Province, Tram Tau and Mu Cang Chai in Yen Bai Province, Y Ty and Bac Ha in Lao Cai Province, Meo Vac and Dong Van in Ha Giang Province were among the first destinations Quy thought of when he started his trans-Vietnam journey in March this year. This was also the seventh time he has returned to the northern highlands, home to poor ethnic minorities that eke out a living by farming.

Children smile with flowers on their back rattan baskets in Ha Giang Province. Photo by Pham Xuan Quy.

The pristine scenery of northern mountains, peaceful villages, and especially the rustic and slow pace of life of ethnic minority communities all left a strong impression on him on previous occasions.

Everywhere he went, he spent a little time capturing daily life and chatting with locals, especially children whose smiles are central to his photo collection.

During his journey last March, he stayed in Ha Giang for eight days, with six days on Tham Ma mountain pass to befriend the elderly and children.

5,000 photos

After seven trips to the northern mountainous region, he has more than 5,000 photos capturing the daily lives of ethnic minorities, gifting over 500 portrait prints to locals.

A woman in Ha Giang laughs as she looks at a photo Quy took of her community. Photo by Pham Xuan Quy.

Quy said he did not take photography classes, but tried his best to capture the most natural moments and expressions of children. Because they cannot speak Vietnamese, he also learned some basic sentences like "Hello", "What’s your name" and "Laugh up"... in Hmong.

The 2019 census conducted by the General Statistics Office of Vietnam shows there were 1.39 Hmong people in the 96-million strong country, most of them living in the northern highlands.

"The children in the highlands have an innocent smile and a very shy expression. It does not matter how many photos I took as long as I could chat with them and give them small gifts, it's enough for me," he said.

Images from his trip are also regularly posted on social media and feature in some photo exhibitions.

Children smile by their bicycle in Ha Giang. Photo by Pham Xuan Quy.

Unforgettable memories

During his trip in May last year, he left his camera when he stopped at a drink store in Mu Cang Chai, a remote rural district in Yen Bai Province. When he returned to search for it the next morning and found no one there, he thought his camera had been taken. However, local people were very enthusiastic to help him.

Luckily, the owner of the shop seemed to be waiting for him to return. As Quy came again, she immediately recognized him and returned the camera to him. Then, Quy found out she was a teacher, selling drinks at night to earn an extra income.

Pham Xuan Quy poses for a photo with children in Ha Giang Province. Photo courtesy of Pham Xuan Quy.

Another time Quy was riding along a narrow path to Mu Village in Yen Bai as it rained heavily, causing him to lose control and nearly falling off a cliff. Luckily, three women passed by, heard him scream for help, and used a rope to pull him up.

"I thought I would die at that moment, but I was lucky I was saved by them. When I wanted to give them all the money I had as a thank-you gift, they shook their heads. Every time I think about that day, I feel so grateful," he said.

"Their lives are still trapped in poverty, with ethnic children having to hawk goods to tourists in poor weather conditions while the elderly don't having enough food but they still smile brightly," he said.

Ethnic children sit at a street corner in Ha Giang Province. Photo by Pham Xuan Quy.

As soon as the pandemic is under control, Quy will return to Ha Giang, bringing not only photos but also hairpins and school supplies for children there.

Lan Huong