Happiness in the dumps: stories of Vietnamese children

A photographer goes through the looking glass into the lives of children in difficult circumstances and holds up a mirror.

Dinh Chi Trung and the children during his trip to Ha Giang in October.

It was a frustrating afternoon in late May.

Dinh Chi Trung, 30, had spent half a day wandering around Phu Quoc Island in southern Kien Giang Province and failed to find characters for his project to tell “100 stories of Vietnamese children”.

He decided to call it quits and check into a hotel.

“I stopped on the road to check my luggage and decided to check in to some hotel near the city centre. Then, two girls drenched in sweat approached me. One of them was Nga, and she shyly asked if I could give them a lift home. Of course I said yes right away. I was very happy and their house was on the way.

“When we arrived, I was very surprised, because their “house” was just a shabby shelter in the middle of a huge waste dump.”

Nga, 9, and the dolls she’s picked up from the waste dump that her family lives in.

Nga was 9 years old, but had never been to school. She lived with her parents who moved from their hometown in An Giang to Phu Quoc 20 year ago, looking for opportunities. An Giang is a Mekong Delta province on the border with Cambodia to the northwest.

“However, life has been difficult for them. They don’t own any land and earn their livelihood from collecting waste so they just live right there,” Trung said.

After spending the afternoon and evening with Nga’s family, Trung created a haunting collection called “Nga and Elsa on rubbish mountain”.

“Nga’s favourite doll, Elsa, and other toys she collected were from the waste dump. I could see she was happy at home. A 9-year-old kid would never ask for anything better than those she hasn’t seen,” Trung wrote.

Trung, a native of Binh Phuoc Province, has become an eloquent storyteller for and about children, his pictures narrating tales of the innocence, resilience and beauty of children in difficult circumstances.

A bright smile

In July, Trung was in Nghe An Province on the north-central coast. A storm had denuded Nghi Loc District. On the fourth day in the area, he saw a girl with a bright smile, selling vegetables with her sister on the side of the road.

Trung approached the two girls and took their photos. Unfortunately, speaking with a different accent, he was suspected to be either “child kidnapper” or engaging in “religious propaganda” by the locals. Soon, the children’s family arrived.

“When I was taking their photos, their mum ran over and drove them away in fear. Their uncle and father were a bit more aggressive. They stopped my motorbike and were determined to take me to the police station.”

At the police station, Trung was “rescued” by the officers. But he was still fixed on the idea of taking photos of the lovely girl, and her family finally accepted. The photo collection featuring Van, the 11-year-old who sell vegetables, was done after Trung spent two days with her family.

Van, the main subject for Trung's photo collection called "Van and shoots rising out of the water surface".

In 2016, Trung quit his job and opened a photo studio for children in his hometown. It was then that the idea for “100 stories of Vietnamese children” came up. Trung used to be an agricultural engineer. After a few years, he shifted to learning graphic design, and then found a passion for photography. His first photos were of his relatives.

“Each child has a story. They have their own thoughts. I want to record their childhood memories, so hopefully, viewers can see themselves as they were when they were innocent and lovely children.”

Trung’s first photo collection was taken right in his home in Phuoc Long District, southern Binh Phuoc Province, and it was about 4-year-old Han. Through some connections, Trung met Han and her family. It was the first time Han had left her hometown in Soc Trang Province, Mekong Delta, to go to a strange place. Every day, Han would play with her 8-month-old baby sister and collect ripe cashew apples. Trung captured many images of the four-year-old girl during the cashew season that year.

Han and her cashew apples.

Trung knows he has to be genuine and patient with children and work to gain their trust.

“It was quite difficult when I tried to take photos of Cuong, a 13-year-old boy who lives on a boat in Thieng Lieng Island, HCMC's Can Gio District. I had to spend a lot of time with the children, staying on the boat, going to the market, playing cards...so Cuong could be comfortable with me.”

Cuong and his brother and sister.

Every month, Trung goes on two to three trips during the weekdays. On weekends, he works at his studio to earn funding for his project. Luckily, the very first photo collections have gained some recognition, and some individuals have supported the children whose stories Trung has told through his pictures.

So far, Trung has finished 11 collections, and all of his subjects are children in special or difficult circumstances, like the 12-year-old orphan who raises pigs to have money for school in the central province of Quang Nam.

My Duyen, who works in the real estate industry in Dong Xoai City, Binh Phuoc Province, has been moved to help: “When Trung released the photo collections, it opened my eyes to the extremely disadvantageous situations that the children are in. I’m not rich, but if there’s anything I can do to help, I will do it.”

Duyen now sponsors gifts for Trung to give to the children’s family when he meets them.

HCMC resident Lai Thuong Hung, author of comic series Tot lanh nho nho (Little goodness), said he used to work in the same company with Trung. In 2016, Trung and Hung both moved in different directions, but they still maintain their friendship.

“Trung is very kind and caring to others around him, even down to small details. I suggested to him, instead of just taking photos (at the studio), he could try to find his own subjects.

“I didn’t expect him to actually do it, and do it so well at first shot.”

Story by Phan Duong

Photos by Dinh Chi Trung

By Phan Duong