Mai Huyen Chi says she will come back to the Mekong Delta again and again, just to listen to the stories of poor children living on tiny river boats.
Last week, she released “Down the stream,” her first short film in which a group of children share their hopes and dreams.
The children, between 6 and 12, have lived on boats since they were born, along a river in Long Xuyen, the capital town of An Giang Province.
Because their parents do not have a permanent residential address, the children do not have birth certificates and they cannot go to school.
They spend their days selling lottery tickets on the streets while their mothers catch fish from the river, where they also bathe and wash clothes.
Chi said she and her friend Ta Nguyen Hiep, who did the filming, saw the group of eight girls and one boy when they were playing near their boat houses one afternoon.
They were excited to see strangers and very polite. They talked about poverty and told their stories with a rare strength and calmness, she said.
One girl in the video wishes she could go to school, find a job and help her mother pay all debts. She does not dream of college. For her high school is more than enough.
The boy named Bien, which means Sea in English, has a stammer. He hopes he can become a singer, as he believes that with no education, he cannot do anything else.
The children all want to live on land because “it will be more fun” and because “the river is dirty.”
Innocent as they are, the children clearly have seen many things they should never be exposed to.
Some say they are not going to get married as they are afraid that their husbands will hit them.
'A whole different world'
Chi, 31, said the four-minute film is her video-editorial debut.
She and Hiep, a freelance filmmaker, shot the footage during their three-day visit last September, but she only had time to edit it after quitting her job as a scriptwriter in March.
Chi first came to the area in August 2013 to accompany a foreign photo journalist to report the impacts of hydropower dams in the Mekong River.
She was interested in the way of life here, which is only ten minutes of bike ride from Long Xuyen downtown but is already a different, much poorer world.
A group of boat children in Long Xuyen pose for Mai Huyen Chi when she visited the town in September 2014.
She met a man called Sau and his family.
“Uncle Sau drives a motor boat and catch fish in the river. He’s an interesting man.”
Chi said she came back last September to visit him, and to be able to see the world from the backyard of his house, which faces the river.
“It’s strangely beautiful and it’s a whole different world.
“Grandfathers, fathers and the kids have a bath there together every afternoon, and they chat and they weave fishing nets.
“They would sit around there and relax until the night comes.
“They don’t have electricity yet, though they really long for it.”
Chi said from Sau’s house, she could see “splendid” electric lights across the river.
But his side of the river is still in darkness.
Joy in the sadness
Hiep, who has many film projects of his own, said the video was all Chi's idea.
At the beginning he just followed to help her, but he was later mesmerized by the beauty of a poor, sad river village.
"You see the vast water from afar. People are just tiny dots lost in that sadness.
"But when you come closer, you can see its charm and joy in each single thing. And it's not really sad, because the children have to overcome the sadness to live. They have to cheer up."
Hiep is joining a project instructing local farmers to film their daily life to show the world. Chi is writing a script for a sci-fi, thriller movie.
Chi plans to come back to Long Xuyen soon to show the children her video and photos.
“So they can have the photos all over their little boat houses and remember they were actors once.”
Her short film, which has gone viral, ends on a hopeful note: a little girl who gets to go to school teaching her younger sister to read.
But their small kerosene lamp was not bright enough in the dark velvet of the night.