Vietnam's first-ever beauty contest for HIV-positive women wrapped up last Sunday. Like any other pageant, it was full of flowers, applause, and the bubbling cries of the winners.
What made the Dau cong duyen dang (Beauty plus) contest unique is that contestants weren't seeking fame or fortune. Instead they hope to inspire "a more positive perception from the community" toward HIV-positive people.
"I want everybody to understand that an HIV-infected person could be a soldier, a police officer, or a teacher," said Nghiem Thi Lan, (first runner-up) during the Q&A round. "They have a right to live and contribute to society and the country."
The contest, initiated by Ong Van Tung, coordinator of the Hanoi-based Bright Future network of HIV-positive people, in cooperation with the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in Vietnam was meant to combat discrimination and stigmatization associated with the virus.
In a phone interview with Thanh Nien Weekly, Tung said that the organizers hoped the contest would prevent people from thinking of HIV as a "social evil."
"Dau cong duyen dang refers to women who are HIV-positive but are still beautiful," he said.
While the contest served as a forum for HIV-positive women to shine and be recognized, it also aimed to encourage afflicted people, fearing discrimination, to come forward.
According to Tung, the organizers expected a maximum of 40 applicants. In the end, 110 women from 15 northern cities and provinces tried out for the contest since its launch, last month.
"We didn't expect that so many people would be willing to reveal their identities," he said. "The contest is a chance for HIV-positive women to showcase the beauty of their confidence."
For Dr. Mai Xuan Phuong from the Ministry of Health's HIV/AIDS Prevention Department, this contest was all about the beauty of spirit and courage.
All the contestants, including the winners, have faced hardships that would cause even the most courageous men to lose hope.
Dau cong duyen dang was launched on October 17. Contestants had to be at least 1.55 meters tall, possess a clean criminal background, and have played a strong role in campaigning against HIV and other social programs.
Applicants were accepted from northern provinces, only.
The final rounds of the pageant were held on November 8-11 in Hanoi. The 15 finalists had been short-listed from 110 contestants. The final rounds included an ao dai event, a self-selected clothing round and a Q&A session.
The winner was named the ambassador of PEPFAR in nationwide campaigns and activities against HIV/AIDS.
Miss Dau cong duyen dang Tran Thi Hue, 28, got married in 2001. Four years later, she discovered that she had contracted the virus from her husband and that their second child was also HIV-positive.
Hue said that, when she first found out about her medical status, she could barely get out of bed. She felt alone and mourned the fate of her child.
But it was the sorrow of her aging parents that finally broke her.
Hue says they dedicated their days to her and her children and cried every night.
She realized that she had to keep living, for their sake.
In October, 2007 Hue went to Ho Chi Minh City to earn a living selling balloons in the street. She later brought her husband and the second child down from Ha Nam Province to the southern city to take care of them. Her first son, who is hearing-impaired and can't speak, stayed with her parents.
Hue says she spent between VND500,000-2 million (US$25-102) a month on medicines for her husband. When they both came down with fever and there was only enough money to buy drugs for one, Hue gave them to her husband.
"As long as my husband is alive, my children still have a dad," she says she told herself.
Keeping that thought in her mind, Hue struggled against the virus for the sake of her husband and children until, one day, he passed away.
"What hurt me most is that he had never said sorry to me," she said in tears.
After that, Hue joined a group of at-risk women in her hometown, as a peer educator.
During a training course for peer activists, she met and fell in love with Nguyen Hong Nghia, who is also HIV-positive.
They married in January and now are living with Nghia's mother and Hue's children. Even with her newfound happiness, she continues to work as a peer educator for HIV projects.
"People who are living with HIV still have the same rights as those who don't. They are still living and contributing to the country," she said.
Since winning the contest, Hue has become an ambassador for PEPFAR's campaigns and activities against HIV/AIDS, nationwide.
Like Hue, the first runner-up, 30- year-old Lan also contracted HIV from her husband, whom she married in 2001. At the time, she had no idea that he had developed a drug addiction while working in the northern Quang Ninh Province.
Her husband died from AIDS in 2003. Lan learned that she and her son were also HIV-positive.
In the beginning, Lan says there were times when she was so hysterical that she threw out all her clothes and decided she would only wear new ones. "I'm going to die, so I've got to wear them all!" she thought.
She also stopped contacting her friends and quit her job.
However, when she started buying anti-retroviral drugs for her son, Lan learned about the Bright Future Network in her hometown, in Thai Binh Province. She says it was the first time she stopped feeling like she was "waiting to die." Instead, she started to learn about the virus to keep her son, Nguyen Tuan Anh, alive.
When Lan brought her boy to a local kindergarten, many parents and teachers refused to admit him. Even though Lan managed to convince the school to enroll him, Anh continued to face discrimination.
This inspired Lan, who then worked as a newsreader for a local radio show, to propose talks on HIV. The talks led to training sessions about HIV prevention for local teachers.
As a result, discrimination against her son ended.
Following the small victory, Lan realized that she was too attached to the work to stop there. She joined the Huong Lua Club and began performing in stage plays about HIV-positive people for VND550,000 ($28.23) a month"”in Thai Binh and other provinces as well.
Lan says she was initially afraid to publicize her story, thinking that she would lose many things, including personal relationships.
However, by doing so, she gained opportunities to show that "HIV-positive people aren't bad."
"People should look at HIV-positive people with more sympathy," she said. "If they want us to stand up by ourselves, they have to welcome us."
Lan decided to take part in the contest to meet new people and have fun.
"Winning a prize won't change my life," she said. "But it will make my work as an HIV/AIDS activist easier."