Portraits of the city

By Kim, Thanh Nien News

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A bestselling book of New York street portraits and interviews has inspired six youths to do the same in Hanoi

"I have taken him here every day for the past 22 years to enjoy the fresh air and warm sunshine. I feel extremely sad sometimes, but I think he is much sadder than I. No matter what, he is still my son. I can't abandon hi. I tell myself to try my best, to love him ten times more than other mothers love their offspring."

A picture may be worth a 1,000 words, but it might require a good caption to bring it alive, as the author of bestselling photo book “Humans of New York” discovered.
In a collection of Hanoi photographs inspired by it is a photo of a middle-aged woman standing arms akimbo. It is a flashback to 20th-century Vietnam, and the caption has the woman saying:
"At the age of 14, I had to go build a dam, unlike you mama’s boys and girls these days. It was very different back then. But well, if I talk about it, the kids will just call me a fussy old woman.
“For example, that white piece of paper thrown there. Back then, something like that was a treasure. We only got to use rough 'Hoang Van Thu' wrapping paper. Paper napkins were a luxury. We always had to soak the paper in rice water to use as napkins.
“I can go on and on, but you kids will never ever be able to imagine the full picture of the hard life back then. Only those who understand this can feel for their parents."
The photos were taken by six youngsters – who call themselves the Freely Team – on the streets of the capital for the collection called ‘Humans of Hanoi.’
They talk to interesting-looking strangers and caption their photos with their quotes.
It has not exactly been a money-spinner for them, with the only thing they have got out of it being over 10,000 “likes” on Facebook.
“It is such an unexpected surprise” Tran Quang Tuan, the head of the team, tells Vietweek.
“The team was founded last July with two members, me and Tran Hong Anh [for a different project].
“At first, we follow an undertaking on changing part of local youth’s distortional thinking.”
HOHN brought the other four members into the team.
The project was initiated last year by Michelle Luu, a Vietnamese-Australian who has since become a member of the team.
It was inspired by self-taught photographer Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York”, also a vibrant photo-blog featuring street portraits and interviews from the US’s most vibrant city.
“At first we were nervous about doing the same since some said we were copying.
“But Michelle contacted Brandon and he said his project is public. And it had been done in Paris, Bangkok, and Prague. That is why we retained the name ‘Humans of Hà Nội’ and did not opt for a new name.”
They began three months ago, but had teething troubles, he says, and the work truly took off only last month.
“It is really difficult to approach and photograph people. But persuading them to speak is even tougher.
“Many people refused when we asked to take their photo. Some even said no picture after hours of talking.
“Months of researching and taking photos have given us the experience to approach strangers.
“We realize that spending time and sincerity are the keys.”
Most people concur that the photos taken by the Freely Team - all self-taught photographers and three of them are still students - “evoke intense emotions” especially because they were shot with film cameras.
Tuan says it was not a ploy to use film cameras: “It was not our plan to distinguish ourselves or capture Hanoi’s antiquity using film cameras. That was all we had.”
Their limited budget is another hindrance since there are no sponsors and the members have to cover the expenses themselves.
So they post hundreds of photos posted every day on their Facebook and Tumblr pages, sparking off a dialogue with their audiences, whom they have never met so far.
Tuan says the project has opened his team’s minds about the 1,000-year-old city and, in fact, the whole country.
“We have learned a lot about Vietnamese culture and living styles. It changed our views. People are not uncaring as they appear.”
They have realized that a sincere and friendly attitude makes people warm up to them quickly.
“There are no walls [between people].”
Besides posting their photos and stories on social networks, Freely Team plans to hold a small exhibition.
“We are organizing some photo contests to increase interaction with both local and foreign youths. Publishing a book is a plan for a little later.”
He also hopes to take the project to another city, probably Ho Chi Minh City.
“We hope it will become a permanent project. We are also considering others who will keep it going for as long as possible.”

- What do you think about happiness?
- It means having a girlfriend.
- Do you have a girlfriend now?
- I have one since third-grade. But why do you wanna know about that? You don't want to be my girlfriend, do you?


- What is the most memorable experience of your life?
- Well, it was during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, on Hill A1, my comrades and I arrested [French Army] Captain Pierre Tourret. I'm just looking forward to the annual celebration on May 7 (Dien Bien Phu's Victory Day) to get a reunion with my comrades.

- How did you get this "1984" tattoo done?
- Well, I burnt car tires and mixed the soot with toothpaste, and with the mixture and two needles I produced ink and tattooed myself.
- What does it mean?
Ah, that was the year I escaped death. I was a commando scout. That year my comrades and I were ambushed by Chinese troops and I was very lucky to get away. However, my comrade got captured. I never saw him again.

The Freely Team, comprising a group of youths born in the 1990s, which too the "Humans of Hà Nội" photos and did the interviews. All photos courtesy of HOHN.

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