Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Faces of Vietnam (Part 1)

I've just returned from Vietnam, on assignment with the organization Photographers Without Borders.  On this trip I was to document the work of "Hearts for Hue", a humanitarian NGO looking to help rebuilt one of the hardest-hit cities of the Vietnam war - a war that, apparently, is still going on between the North and the South.  My assignment was to tell the story of the positive difference the organization was making, via both stills and video.  There are a lot of stories to tell, and of course many of you are interested in the technical side (including why I rarely kept the camera on straight "Auto").  So I'm splitting this story into two blog posts - in this one I'll share with you my pictures and stories.  In the next post I'll talk about what the experience was like, the equipment I used, and what it's like working for Photographers Without Borders.  You can do this kind of work for them too!

Meet Miss Hanh, who was born with no arms. She was one of the first recipients of HfH's chicken and pig program for self-reliance. She was given 100 chickens, 50 ducks, and one piglet. The piglet has since given birth 4 times, with a litter of 4-16 piglets each time.  She and her sister can live off the money when some of the animals are brought to market, plus they provide food (along with the vegetation around the house.  I found her attitude to be inspiring. I also took video of her for a PWB documentary.  (Notice the dog under the bed, who was kind enough to pose also. :-) )
Hearts for Hue, in conjunction with several corporate donors around the world, administers several programs to help its neediest citizens:

1) Chicken, pig, and duck raising program – HfH donates livestock and trains recipients how to care for them, breed them, and take them to market (as well as using them for feeding the family).  This not only brings in disposable income, but it also helps feed the families and gives people meaningful work they can do.  200 years ago everyone knew how to do this, but this knowledge has been lost through industrialization.  More than 1000 people who can't hold conventional jobs due to disabilities have been helped through this sustainable program.  

2) Microfinance – small loans are made to groups within communities to help local businesses ramp up.  Generally these loans are made to groups of 10 or so families within a community; larger loans are only made available once all the families pay the loans back (thereby providing social pressure for everyone to repay the loans).  

3) Clean Water and sanitation project, which has brought clean water and sanitary toilets (complete with septic tank) to 10 households in the Phuc Loc village.  What you can't see is all the work uphill:  They built a dam, they filtered the water, and brought the water to the houses. HfH coordinated this effort with local authorities and international donors.

4) Literacy programs – the Motorbike Book Club.  Like a bookmobile, once a week a representative comes to a small village and loan out books - mostly in English, but have been hand-translated into Vietnamese.  The kids also can indulge in puzzles and played fun games before the visit ends.

5) The Solar program provides solar-powered lights to areas that lack electricity; usually the areas selected also participate in the Motobike Book Club so the kids can read the books they borrow at night.
A household full of mental illness. The daughter was raped when she was younger, and her child is mildly retarded, but all live under the same roof.  Hearts for Hue recruited volunteers to build them a chicken coup, then populated it to get the family started.  One of the benefits of the chicken feeding program is that it is simple and relaxing for older and mentally challenged individuals. Because of HfH, this family can still care for themselves.

This woman from the Vinh Phu Community has had a very hard life.  In 2007, her husband suffered a brain injury due to a railway accident, and was paralyzed for 4 years. He’s recovered partially but still has mental issues. In 2017, her son got a brain injury and her husband fell and broke his wrist the same day. She lost all of her money to hospital bills, and has had to quit her office job in order to care for them both.   HfH is helping in two ways – by enrolling her in the microfinance project, and the pig / chicken / duck feeding program.  She can now stay home and still care for her family. 

Meet Hong Do Nhu, who's head of the Motorbike Book Club. Like a bookmobile, once a week she comes to a small village and loan out books - mostly in English, but she has hand-translated every word. She also brought puzzles and played fun games with the kids. Such happy faces!!!

One of many recipients of the Chicken Raising Program.  Hearts for Hue got volunteers to build the coupe, and donated 30 chickens (plus knowledge on how to use them to run a business).

Another recipient.

This one's in hog heaven.

Her name is Ngo Thi Lan Anh.  Her family is a participant of the Volunteer project supported by We Are Bamboo Travel Company in collaboration with Hearts For Hue. A group of international volunteers gave a hand to build a new chicken coop which has helped her family expand the chicken raising model and generate more income.  This girl's father was exposed to Agent Orange, which affects the DNA descendents.  This girl is now 18 years old.  Her family was applying to Hearts for Hue for aid on the day I visited.  

This is the result of the Clean Water Project, which brought clean water and sanitary toilets (complete with septic tank) to 10 households in the Phuc Loc village.  More about Hearts for Hue here: 

This microfinancing recipient is an entire family, making a traditional dish called “cơm hến” (roughly translated to "baby basket clams rice"). They start with a vegetable called Colocasia (or "elephant ears"), add oysters, peanuts, fried onions, fried pork skin, sauce, boil things for awhile, and bring it to market. (I've oversimplified it a tad.)
A collection of fishing boats in Thanh Phuoc where entire families live - some have as many as 5 children. Back in 2015 Hearts for Hue helped to supply solar power for these boats so they could at least read the books they borrow from the Motorbike Book Club at night. Since then the power company has provided conventional power for these boat houses so they can power more substantial appliances.  Most of these kids get little education. Then at around 7th grade they head over to Saigon to work.  I also have video of them playing baseball barefoot at a construction site.

Washing rice in a most certainly unclean river.  The rice is cooked making it safe to eat.
Portrait of a Buddhist.

The Buddhist temple I visited took in a lot of orphans (like these two) and provides food, shelter, clothing, and education.  Here they were in a class learning English.
Another beneficiary.

Hearts for Hue collaborated with the DOVE Foundation and Singapore Management University to build this kindergarten school in the Xuan Loc commune. 

Cutting out some intricate decorations

While there I visited the largest farmer's market I've ever seen.

Kids are cute the world over. 
This is just a taste of the photos I shot.  If you want to get a more well-rounded version of what the trip was like you can view my facebook feed starting Nov. 30th 2018, and/or have a look at this Google Photos album I've created.

I don't make the cover as often as you think. -)  The next edition (in the mail now) has an 8-page spread describing this project in greater detail.  Subscribe today!
In the next blog post I'll talk more about the behind-the-scenes issues associated with tackling such a project.  If you would like to help me offset my costs for this trip, my fundraising page is still open for donations :-)


  1. greatly worthwhile and inspiring in all respects Gary.
    thank you for facilitating the chance to get an insight into the lives and experiences of these people.
    A humbling privilege in more ways than one.

  2. Outstanding! To follow the steps of W. Eugene Smith is no small task and you've made me remind of him!

  3. Greatly worthwhile indeed!
    We tend to live in our own little cocoon never really seeing beyond what we want to see. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

  4. Awesome post on Vietnam Gary. My wife is Vietnamese (which makes our travels there so much more full for me) and we've traveled around the country. Your pics capture both the joy and the pain of the country. I plan to go back soon.

    Anyway, great job and I always look forward to your posts/adventures. This one especially hit home.


  5. Your blog is amazing and the images are so reflective of the lifeforce you observed; I look forward to the magazine exposé.


  6. Gary,

    Thank you for what you gave us through these photographs: all the love and suffering so obvious in all. I'm glad you went and brought back all their stories and lives to make us know these people. Great photographs and great kids!

    Yours, Jean-Marie Wallet

  7. Being a Viet Nam veteran, I enjoyed your snapshots of Viet Nam life today. Needless to say, the current regime has done little/nothing to better the lives of the many. Dennis Doucet

  8. Super nice job on the Vietnamese photos.
    Gary, you are a real inspiration
    Thanks for sending these to me. Wally Motloch

  9. Great photos of Viet Nam. Too bad there isn't wider circulation of them. VN has been relegated to the back burner with everything else that is going on

  10. What a trip and what a selection of photographs documenting it. Thanks for sharing Gary.

  11. The D.O.V.E. Fund is proud to be associated with Hearts For Hue. The Development Of Vietnam Endeavors is an American based 501c3 charitable organization comprised of Vietnam veterans, Rotarians and concerned citizens who have been providing humanitarian assistance to the neediest people in Vietnam for more than 20 years. To learn more and to make a contribution, log onto Daniel Gregg, The D.O.V.E. Fund

    1. D.O.V.E. Fund has done much to improve the lives of the less fortunate in Vietnam!


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