Floating life

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A young filmmaker tells the story of a poor elderly couple with nothing but their love for each other

Nguyen Thi Thuy (L) and Nguyen Van Thanh, a poverty stricken couple depicted in Do Thanh Ha's touching short documentary
Do Thanh Ha

The short documentary opens with the tears of an old lady.

She is Nguyen Thi Thuy, 70, and she's lived on a floating house along the bank of the Red River in rural Hanoi for 12 years.

"I have no kids, nobody to look after. Without descendants, I feel so sad, I have no kids around me," Thuy says as the tears blend in with her wrinkled face.

Standing next to Thuy is Nguyen Van Thanh, her husband. Thanh says his wife reacts that way whenever young people pass by their home. They've tried to have kids, but it's never worked.

"She talks like that all the time," he tells the filmmakers. "You remind her of the kids. She wakes up at midnight, and cries a river."

As Thuy talks about her rough life and sadness, the camera shakes.

"I was deeply touched, and I couldn't hide my emotion," said Do Thanh Ha, the student filmmaker.

"It seems Thuy and Thanh were born to complete each other. They still collect and sort garbage, and leave behind their past homelessness and loneliness," said Ha.

The 14-minute documentary called Tinh gia (An elderly couple) was a homework assignment at the University of Military Culture and Art in 2010.

After making the film, Ha left the school and began pursuing his dream of becoming a television director at Hanoi's University of Stage and Cinema. Now he is in his third year.

Ha met Thuy as he wandered along the Red River looking for inspiration for his homework. She was collecting garbage.


"She saved me from coming to a standstill. Her scrawny figure and dirty clothes caught my attention immediately. I came to get acquainted with her," he said.

"At first, Thanh did not want to moan with me about his life struggles. He refused to tell me Thuy's working route. I had to secretly follow her, and she caught me. At last, she agreed to let me tag along," said Ha.

Hard row to hoe

Thuy was born in Thai Binh Province, northern Vietnam.

Thanh does not remember exactly where he was born, but he knows it was a remote location near the Laotian border in the north-central province of Thanh Hoa, south of Hanoi. Poverty has prevented him from returning there for nearly 60 years. He left in his twenties.

He then worked as a stevedore on the docks of Hanoi, hoping for a new and better life. In 1969, he met Thuy, who was begging on the streets after running away from home and an abusive step-mother. Thanh and Thuy both say it was love at first sight. They've never officially married because they say they don't need to love is enough.

Thanh has three brothers and sisters, but he hasn't talked to them in decades.

He has begun suffering the mental effects of old age, and gets lost if he strays too far from their home. So now Thuy does the garbage collection and Thanh waits at home to sort it later.


Ha said the couple is the saddest of the 17 families living in the riverside area Thuy and Thanh call home.

"Their biggest misfortune is having no children. They have nothing but a huge amount of love for each other," said Ha.

"We haven't changed anything, almost nothing," said Thanh with Thuy nodding in agreement. "But we still laugh. It's ok, and that's our life.

"When we are honest, nobody will blame or laugh at us, as long as we don't do bad or immoral things. Despite our hunger and poverty, we should still behave well," he continued.

Ha said he spent five days shooting the elderly couple's daily life before editing for two weeks with the mentorship of famous poet and script-writer Phan Huyen Thu, and the support of young filmmakers from the Vietnam Cinema Association's Center for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD). Ha is a member of the Ford Foundation-sponsored center, which aims to help develop local filmmaking talents.

His simple film about love has moved most viewers and received certificates of merit from the Hanoi University of Stage and Cinema and the 2010 Golden Kite Awards in the short documentary category. Ha is now an editor at Vietnam Television's channel VTV3.

He still regrets that his documentary lacks night scenes.

"Night scenes would make the story better and help the viewers understand more about their life," said Ha.

But he's grateful for the experience he had making the film.

"Thuy and Thanh really encouraged my passion for cinema," he said.

Ha is now working on a TPD project called WAFM, which stands for We Are The Filmmakers.

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